“Scientists need to embrace a problem solving mindset”

Dr Radha Rangarajan, Director, Central Drug Research Institute (CSIR-CDRI), Lucknow shares insights on the initiatives at the institute, industry academia interactions, technological trends, biopharma industry and much more

In today’s world, being interdisciplinary is the key, believes Dr Radha Rangarajan, Director, Central Drug Research Institute (CSIR-CDRI), Lucknow who in an exclusive interview shared her views on the initiatives at the institute, industry academia interactions, technological trends, biopharma industry and much more.

BV LogoWhat are the main areas of focus and research at CSIR-CDRI under your leadership? Can you share some notable achievements or breakthroughs that the institute has made in recent years?
CDRI’s mission is to develop drugs, process technologies and diagnostics for diseases of relevance to India. We work in 8 therapeutic areas which include viral, microbial and parasitic infections, cancer, musculoskeletal disorders, reproductive health, metabolic diseases and neurological disorders. Our scientists are involved in both, basic and translational research and development.
Some of our recent successes include Phase 1 approvals for 3 small molecules, 1 Phase 3 approval for a phytopharmaceutical drug, completion of a Phase 3 trial for a drug repurposed for Covid along with our industry partner, and a technology impact award (STEM Technology Transfer Impact Award-2022) for a nano-formulation from Spinacia oleracea for Osteoarthritis. In addition, a DNA binding dye for research use and a universal quencher for RT-PCR assays have been transferred to industry partners.
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What initiatives or strategies are you implementing to bridge the gap between academia and industry in the field of drug discovery?
CDRI has been engaging with industry since its inception. CDRI’s research and development activities in drugs, diagnostics and process technologies have required interactions and tech transfers, mainly to the pharmaceutical industry. Our current engagements are with small, medium and large sized pharma and biotech companies in the life sciences sector. We invite speakers from such companies to our campus to give talks and discuss areas of common interest with our scientists.  We also participate in industry events to showcase our IP and products in development. Further, we offer services in drug testing, toxicology, in vitro screening, in vivo pharmacology and analytical chemistry, which are often sought by medium and small sized companies. More recently, we have started to host workshops with industry partners to facilitate collaborations from idea to product.
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In your opinion, what are the most promising areas of research or emerging technologies that could revolutionize the biopharma industry in the coming years?
The pharma and biopharma industry faces many challenges today. There is a need to respond to emerging diseases in real time, expand therapies for diseases with low incidence while balancing affordability and access. This means that the industry has to take a renewed look at R&D processes and business models. Technologies that reduce risk of failure, speed up the development of products and allow for differentiated products to go to market are all relevant for the industry to pivot.
In the area of drug discovery and development, I believe that AI/ML tools are going to play an outsized role. If such tools are able to better predict compounds that are efficacious and safe, the success rate, cost and time to take drugs to market may be dramatically impacted. Some examples of early success such as the repurposing of baricitinib during the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent news of In Silico Medicine taking an AI designed drug for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis into Phase 1 are heartening. But for these tools to become mainstream, bottlenecks such as the lack of publicly available data sets and the near absence of interdisciplinary teams need to be addressed.
I am also hopeful about PROTACs, oligonucleotides, antibodies and peptide based therapies which are broadening the range of proteins that can be targeted for therapeutic purposes.
“I encourage scientists to think big and be bold. Ideas that are futuristic spur cutting edge research which in turn, lead to impactful solutions.”
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As one of the esteemed jury members for the Merck Young Scientist Award 2023, what are your views on the impact it creates on young scientists?
The Merck Young Scientist Award aims to identify exceptional young scientists whose work has the potential for impact in the fields of biological sciences, chemical sciences, and sustainability research. For scientists who are inclined towards translational research and development, this is an opportunity to showcase their work and be recognized.
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What is the selection criteria for this award? How have your experiences been in the past while choosing winners?
Researchers and scientists with less than 10 years of post-Ph.D research experience, working in Indian institutes are eligible to apply. The jury panel, consisting of eminent scientists, meticulously evaluates each application based on four parameters: originality, innovation, scalability, and implication on human life. Shortlisted applicants present their work to the jury members. The presentation allows the panel to gain deeper insights into the transformative potential of the research, leading to the selection of the winners and runners-up.
The past competitions have seen a large number of applications from across India. There have been many worthy applicants and several were recognized in 2019 and 2021. Given the high standards, this award series can become a benchmark for high quality translational research for the life sciences community.
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What advice would you give to aspiring scientists who are interested in pursuing a career in drug research and development?
Scientists need to embrace a problem solving mindset that involves identifying unmet needs, understanding how the world is currently addressing the problem and deducing the gaps. Armed with such knowledge, scientists should then propose an appropriate hypothesis and develop their research program. This approach ensures that their research is better aligned with what industry wants.
In today’s world, being interdisciplinary is key. The world’s toughest problems, whether related to sustainability or drug development require scientists to traverse multiple areas of science. I am not suggesting that scientists sacrifice depth. Instead, addressing research questions collaboratively is what I think will make outcomes more innovative and tailored.
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Looking ahead, what are your long-term goals and aspirations for CSIR-CDRI?
CSIR-CDRI has a history of successfully developing drugs and taking them to market. With changes in the regulatory requirements, funding mechanisms and business models of the pharma industry, CDRI has had to adapt. In the current environment, CDRI needs to be more closely aligned with industry, work in greater collaboration with academic institutes, foundations and startups and stay focused on differentiated products. Further, CDRI should become an integral part of the startup ecosystem, helping startups achieve proof-of-concept with their innovations and serving as co-development partners. Finally, my hope is that students and scientists see CDRI as a hub of excellence to pursue basic and translational research and development.

*This interview was first published in the August 2023 edition of the BioVoice eMagazine.