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Our generation are the first human beings who can actually be cured of our diseases; our forefathers could, at best, be relieved of their symptoms, nothing more. It all began with the development of penicillin in 1939, and since then we’ve come, with amazing speed, to the mapping of the human genome, and all the wonderful possibilities that it now opens up for us. The biblical lifespan of “three score years and ten” is now a thing of the past; our children will possibly live twice as long as that. And for all of this, we have to thank the global pharma industry.
But, inevitably, there’s a price we have to pay. The research labs of global pharma companies seem to be deliberately distanced from their corporate offices, so that the research scientists shouldn't think too much about corporate matters and the corporate guys shouldn’t get distracted by medical or human issues. Which is what makes Dr Anji Reddy’s memoirs so interesting— because he was a research scientist who, in his own idealistic fashion, tried to buck the system.
An Unfinished Agenda is the story of a man who started life as a chemist in a public sector drug company (riding an old scooter, as he tells us, with a headlight that didn’t work). At the age of 45, he set up Dr Reddy’s Labs, with the vision of providing affordable medicines to the public. By the early 2000s, his company had become “the pill factory to the world” (a Forbes magazine cover headline), supplying bulk drugs to many of the world’s major generic pharma companies and, in the process, helping to position India as a global pharma player.
The most interesting part of the book, however, are the chapters on the company’s efforts to move up the value chain to the discovery of new molecules—efforts that came tantalisingly close to success, with two new molecules for the treatment of diabetes. These two ‘glitazar’ molecules went right up to the clinical development stage, but got tripped up at the last regulatory step (a scenario described in a chapter poignantly titled ‘The Graveyard of the Glitazars’). If one of those glitazars had made it to a patent, it would have arguably become a ‘blockbuster drug’, with sales of $1 billion-plus. (To put that in perspective, the company’s total turnover today, across approximately 250 products, is $2.5 billion.)
The book has the feel of a scientist’s personal diary, rather than that of a slick business autobiography like Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity or Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, but that is perhaps its charm, giving us a feel of the author’s essential simplicity. It is peppered with fascinating scientific anecdotes about people like Dr Roy Vagelos, the visionary ex-Merck chairman; Dr Yellapragada Subbarow, the legendary biochemist who helped develop the world’s first chemotherapy drug and the first tetracycline antibiotic; and Dr Husain Zaheer who, along with Dr Inder Kacker, developed methaqualone, the only new molecule ever to come out of India (which was, ironically, swiped and patented by a US drug firm, and went on to become a blockbuster drug of the 1960s).
Ultimately, of course, Dr Anji Reddy's agenda remained unfinished: the new molecule that he dreamed of never happened in his lifetime. He died of cancer just one week after the first dummy of this book was printed.