SAMI Labs: Tapping into nature for a healthier and better India

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Working with nature

Sabinsa Corporation was first established in 1988 in the state of New Jersey, USA by Dr Muhammad Majeed. It largely imported and marketed generic off-patent drugs. Inspired by Ayurveda, Majeed decided to work on Indian herbs for the medical industry. After the initial success of this programme, he established Sami Chemicals and Extracts Pvt Ltd in Bangalore in 1991. Sami Chemicals first started out with the export of hypolipidaemic agent Gugulipid®. In 1996, Sabinsa was listed in the Inc 500, and awarded its first US patent for Bioperine®, a black pepper extract that increases nutrient absorption. Later, Sami Chemicals was rechristened Sami Labs, and after its reverse merger with Sabinsa in 2002, was officially Sami Labs Ltd.

Over the years, they've been granted numerous patents and set up various R&D facilities across India. Recently, Sami Labs announced its acquisition of a second manufacturing unit in SP Biotech Park, Genome Valley, Hyderabad. It's subsidiaries are already spread across the USA, Europe, Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, UAE, China, Russia and South Korea.

Mr V. G. Nair, Group CEO, SAMI Group

Majeed created Sami Labs so he could create a business similar to the one the Western world was familiar with. "No one believes you if you just talk about curative properties of herbs. They'd like us to prove it scientifically," says V. G. Nair, Director and Chief Executive Officer of Sami Labs.

Till date, Sami Labs has acquired 94 patents of standardised extracts with over 50 still in the pipeline. But, being low-key and almost timid about their two-decade-long success is a cultural ethos at Sami Labs. Majeed himself, as Nair explains, is a self-effacing man more concerned with the sciences than dramatics.

According to data aggregated by the Indian Brand Equity Foundation, at the end of the FY13, the size of the Indian biotech sector was US$ 4.3 billion, compared to US$ 1.5 billion in just 2006. Within the industry, biopharmaceuticals, the same area of work Biocon is involved in, constitutes 64% of the total revenue from the industry. However, at a global scale, it only still holds 2 per cent share. Whilst growth is expected to hit US$ 73 billion by 2020, India's complex regulation process, slow pace of innovation and lack of investments in biotechnology will likely be a hindrance to further growth.

Nair reflects this concern when he says, "Employment opportunities are actually very low in our industry, and biotech companies are still far and few compared to international market."

Greatest challenges

Getting into the details of Sami Labs' work, Nair says, "When it comes to biotechnology, there are two areas we're involved in: herbal and bacteria-based. In the former, we identify active molecules in herbal materials and extract them using solvent CO2. After this, we do a toxicity study and clinical evaluation for application. In the latter, we create probiotics and enzymes."

One of Sami Labs' biggest challenges is the dearth of medicinal plants. Take curcumin, an extract derived from turmeric. In the production of the Curcumin C3 Complex®, nearly a tonne of turmeric yields only 15 kilos of curcumin. "The research itself takes time and money. In fact, success rates are just 1 or 2 of 100 molecules we research," says Nair.

Outside of resource-related challenges, there are contentious issues within biotechnology, too. One is biopiracy and the other is genetic modification. India has had a long and politically tumultuous history in both areas.

America, on the other hand, has a rich history of biopiracy largely due to their biased patent laws. In the course of a few decades, they've tried patenting turmeric, tulsi, neem and apple for medicinal properties already recognised by Ayurvedic medicine. Within this context, Nair thinks it's important for India to step up its game and put its traditional knowledge to use. He also clarifies, "In the case of the turmeric controversy, you cannot simply patent something that has been known historically. What we've done is standardised a particular extract in turmeric, discovered a novel use, and then patented it in that context. Natural products themselves cannot be patented."

On genetic modification, Nair says, "We do not engage in GMO on principle. We don't want to get into research where we won't be able to control its development." A drug takes 10-15 years on average to be developed, tested and marketed. Even after it is marketed, its effects are closely monitored. GMO produce, on the other hand, has no clinical trial period to ascertain its safety, and those in the industry are fervently against any legislation that mandates GMO go through the same scientific measures of repeatability and reproducibility other drugs do.

Making cures affordable

"What's basically happening in the West is that they're finding cures, but the system itself has become too profit-oriented. If it's allowed to continue this way, the cost of medicine will be too prohibitive for the common people in our country. We just won't be able to afford medicine. In fact, already we can't.

"It's become more important to conduct fast studies than thorough studies.

"I think we're more cautious, and it's better like that. Compared to cures, we're moving more towards preventative remedies."

The biggest problem, however, comes from the environment itself. The availability of medical plants is dwindling as more land is encroached for urban development schemes and setting up industries. Pollution also corrupts the quality of flora.

For a decade, Sami Labs has undertaken the task of commercial cultivation of medicinal plants with the cooperation of farmers. According to their site, they support the farmers with buy back guarantees, crop insurance, bank finance and fair price for the produce.

"Even in contract farming," says Nair, "we make sure our pesticides are all eco-friendly. Wherever it's possible to go for safe methods of cultivation, we educate farmers to adopt these methods. Though the yield is 5-10% lower, we don't have to worry about long-term harmful effects."

He adds, "The world has to remain a healthy place for people to live. Any progress against that is always bad, so we don't venture into playing with nature. It's more important for us to preserve natural resources from which we can develop important medicine and to protect this knowledge from exploitation."