Indian Startup Endowed to Fight Superbugs

Breaking News

Indian Startup Endowed to Fight Superbugs

Photo by: Nvvchar via Wikimedia Commons


A drug discovery start-up based in Bengaluru, India has the established objective and marketing strategy to find biopharma assets that could expedite the development of treatments for the proclaimed deadliest superbugs in the world. This company, Bugworks Research, is the first in Asia to receive an internationally sought endowment from CARB-X, a public-private initiative, and the initial investment is reported to run up to $2.6 million with the potential to reach as high as $3.5 million.

Bugworks Research is a small company nestled within the Bengaluru campus of the University of Agricultural Science in India, and they are dedicated to the cause of fighting superbugs. CARB-X (Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator) was established a year ago to support the international development of new, antibacterial drugs that aim to treat multidrug-resistant (MDR) infections. Meanwhile, for the past three years, Bugworks has heavily involved itself in the arduous endeavor of finding solutions to all sorts of superbug infections.

CARB-X announced, in addition, their establishment of a tranche comprised of $17.6 million that is intended to fund the research projects of scientists from the US, UK, Switzerland, France, India, and Ireland. The current focus for Bugworks Research founders, Anand Anandkumar, Santanu Datta, and V Balasubramanian, is "ESKAPE" pathogens, as they try to find a drug that can combat them. These are Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumonia, Acinetobacter baumanii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacter.



The latter yields urinal infections, while the others respectively cause respiratory infections, neonatal meningitis, weakening of the immune system in the case of Klebsiella pneumonia or Acinetobacter baumanii, and pneumonia. V Balasubramanian, Bugworks president and head of Research and Development, said 90 percent of infections happen because of these six bacteria, which is why they are targeting these specifically.

“Being awarded the CARB-X grant vindicates our deep-seated belief that world class drug-discovery, innovation, and execution can happen out of India," Balasubramanian said. "The fact that this grant focuses on the global unmet medical need of developing new antibiotics against superbugs, an area which has seen no new antibiotics in several decades, (means we) should intensify our efforts even further.” 

The research that CARB-X is now funding for Bugworks targets these superbugs directly and proves very promising thus far. The company is shifting research toward the development of first-in-class, broad-spectrum gyrase-topoisomerase inhibitors to fight MDR Gram-negative bacteria. This research, therefore, is pioneering on that front and will prove revolutionary with each step forward.

The firm aims to undertake the difficult endeavor of overhauling how pharmaceutical and biotechnological efforts against these kinds of bacteria are even implemented. Moreover, the payoff is, as Balasubramanian said, a prospective treatment for 90 percent of infections, based on existing findings.



Vishal Krishna, a business editor who covers socioeconomic issues in India, writes: “The company, which was formed in February 2014, came together after a few unexpected events. Anand and Santanu were colleagues at CellWorks, a computational modeling company for the biotech industry. Their company partnered with Astra Zeneca at the latter’s pharma R&D center in Bengaluru, which is where they met Balasubramanian.

“The three had met earlier in early 2012, when they had flown to London to present a paper to Wellcome Trust, a charitable organization that supports scientists and research. The paper was on tuberculosis and how a computational model could be used to derive a cocktail of drugs rather than empirically stitching together a treatment combination to fight the TB bacterium. They were up against 125 such applicants from global research centers.”

Those companies let the trio present their research before Wellcome Trust so long as they understood that their research would only be supported if they won the grant.  Anand recounted: “We were clearly told that we would not be encouraged to work on TB infections, unless we won the grant because it was not cored to both the companies.” The trio, of course, was selected for a £1-million grant; however, in 2013, things went south.

At age 55 at the time, Balasubramanian was forced to stop half-complete research related to TB, following the shutdown of a research center owned by Astra Zeneca. Not long thereafter, Wellcome Trust took back his funding, prompting Balasubramanian to entreat Santanu and Anand for a position at CellWorks. He successfully negotiated his way to a position at CellWorks with them, just before all three were told to pack up their research. “This is when the three of us decided to set up our own firm," Anand says. "We were taking a big risk.” 

Santanu was 62-years-old at the time, and for him and Balasubramanian, entrepreneurship seemed like an extreme risk because of just how foreign the experience would be to them both. They elected to go for it in spite of this, only because of their mutual faith in Anand, who had an exceptional track record for building corporations from the ground up. Anand had already been integral to the developments of three startups, which included CellWorks and Magma—two corporations that became quite massive under his push.

Krishna explains why the CARB-X grant proves that the hard work of these three men can now officially be said to have paid off: “CARB-X selected seven projects that are building potential antibiotics targeting Gram-negative bacteria, a new treatment for drug-resistant gonorrhoea, a new drug molecule that targets resistance in cystic fibrosis infections, and Phase I development of an oral, broad-spectrum antibiotic. CARB-X is a partnership between the UK’s Wellcome Trust charity and the US Department of Health and Human Services Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).


Photo by: U.S. Government via Wikimedia Commons


The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) provides pre-clinical support. The latest round of awards is part of a $455-million commitment by the US and Wellcome Trust over five years. Kevin Outterson, executive director of CARB-X and Boston University law professor, emphasized that the fight against MDR infections requires greater private and international support. “Drug-resistant infections are complex, and developing new antibiotics is challenging and costly,” Outterson explains. He also says that it’s critical that the R&D pipeline is restored for addressing these superbugs.

Outterson added: “Restoring the R&D pipeline is vital to address the increasing threat of superbugs, which have become resistant to existing drugs. This is a global problem and CARB-X is a critical part of the global solution. We are looking to support the best potential new treatments and diagnostics across the world.”



Cedric Dent

Immunogene Therapy as New Weapon against Emerging Superbugs


Cedric Dent

The Feasibility of Personalized Healthcare


Cedric Dent

Nanotweezers: The Next Small Thing