Pune/New Delhi: Dermatological diseases are a major health burden globally. Though not terminal, the change in appearance caused by these diseases has a profound effect on the quality of life of patients, as they have to live with it throughout their life. Associated myths about these diseases have caused ostracization of patients in several sections of the society and have added to their psychological trauma. Treatments are hence being desperately sought.
Pune based Ahammune Biosciences is working on the innovative solutions for such unmet dermatological disorders. Founded by Dr. Krishnamurthy Natarajan and Dr. ParuI Ganju, Ahammune boasts of an interdisciplinary team of dedicated scientists and thought leaders who share a common goal of translating scientific breakthroughs to foster innovative treatments.
Ahammune’s lead drug candidate, AB1001 has a first-in class mechanism of action for vitiligo and has been developed as a targeted treatment. Pre-clinical studies with AB1001 have established this molecule as a promising drug candidate. It is not only effective in animal studies but is also very safe when applied for long periods of time. With approvals received from DCGI for our Phase 1, it has initiated human trials which are currently underway to probe the safety of the drug. This is extremely important for treatments of chronic diseases like vitiligo, where long term interventions are required.
Passion for immunology
Chronic skin diseases as the primary focus area stems from the expertise of Ahammune’s founders in this area. Both Dr Natarajan, a Professor at JNU, and Dr Parul Ganju have worked extensively on skin pigmentation and related disorders.
During their research, they had a chance to interact with several patients who were suffering from vitiligo. It made them realize while this was an intriguing scientific problem for them, its impact on patients was huge. That is when they decided to translate our scientific knowledge into treatments which could help these patients. As a result, Ahammune was set up in May 2016.
“We intend to remove the fear and stigma that is often associated with skin diseases”
Dr. Parul Ganju, Co-founder & CEO, Ahammune Biosciences
“People are often intrigued with the company’s name “Ahammune” which in fact is a combination of Sanskrit word “Aham” meaning self and immunity. The name symbolizes our efforts to develop treatments for autoimmune diseases, developed from India for the world and thus would fulfil the mandate of Atmanirbhar for indigenous, self-reliance for unmet drug need,” says Dr Parul Ganju, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer.
The company’s breakthrough innovations thus not only have the potential for financial gains, but also carry tremendous societal reward. The impact that these treatments will have on the lives of millions of people and their families suffering due to these lifelong conditions will be unprecedented.
Covid times were extremely challenging for the entire Ahammune team, with tight fund flow and work constraints. But with the combined efforts of its team and well-wishers, they were able to outperform their own expectations under uncertain scenarios. With combined efforts, they filed their first IND application with DCGI and transitioned to a clinical phase company- a huge milestone for a startup company.
Sharing the journey, Parul says, “When we first started, we were overwhelmed by the support that we got from the general public, who, even though unaware of the drug discovery process, were willing to take part in the clinical studies for the welfare of the patients. This also made us realize that we have a tremendous responsibility to deliver to the expectation of the people who are looking up to us for a solution to this unmet therapeutic need.”
As the drug discovery is a nascent field in India, finding investors for funding such high risk projects is a challenging task. Parul credits the right set of people who believed in the vision of the company and invested in it at the ideation stage.
She elaborates: “Our early investors and Ahammune Board Members have been a huge support for us and have been guiding us with their valuable experience in both science and strategy. Besides them, the support from GoI through DBT-BIRAC not only helped in receiving high-level peer review, but the funds were a huge support for carrying out our science”.
Affordability, Parul says, is the key to accessibility. “The cost of drug development in India is one tenth the cost in the USA. Ahammune is leveraging this opportunity to bring new and cost-effective drugs to clinical trials. We envisage the drug to be in the Indian market by 2025. The synthetic chemistry of AB1001 has also been optimized to reduce its cost of production,” she informs further.
Parul believes that government’s policy and funding support has also been an enabler in driving the fast-paced growth of the biotech sector.
“Startups are going to play a major role in the near future to help India attain its goal of self-reliance. One major aspect that will further drive the growth of the startup ecosystem is constructive engagement between the different stakeholders- academia, industry, venture capitalists and drug regulators. A policy push streamlining innovation commercialization will additionally assist in the advancement of the biotech sector, which attracts far less investment compared to other technology sectors such as the IT,” mentions Parul.
Vitiligo treatment is an unmet need with a huge market opportunity of over USD 2 billion. Currently, immunomodulators form a major proportion of this market. The company aspires to replace these with its targeted and safe topical treatment.
Ahammune recently raised an undisclosed amount of funding from various investors.
“Drug discovery is a capital-intensive process. Our Pre-Series A funding helped us tremendously to complete our pre-clinical studies and now start our human studies. We will be starting our next fund raise soon,” adds Parul.
While advancing its therapeutic portfolio for vitiligo through multiple stages of human clinical trials, Ahammune plans to continue with expansion of its scientific breakthroughs through development of new and comprehensive treatment strategies for other dermatological diseases.
Outlining the future priorities, Parul says, “We aim to introduce our drug into the Indian market first while simultaneously developing it for the rest of the world. We intend to remove the fear and stigma that is often associated with skin diseases which remain unmet medical needs.”
**This story was first published in ‘October 2022 edition’ of BioVoice eMagazine.