If decades of research and tens of billions of dollars in investment have taught us one thing about cancer, it’s the science of detecting and cheating the disease. Drugs that ace this are among the highest grossers for their manufacturers.

“If you start with 1 billion cells, there are 1 billion routes to resist [the treatment], if you start with 100 cells, there are 100 routes to resist [the treatment]. So detecting early and cheating early has been successful,” says Siddhartha Mukherjee, assistant professor at Columbia University in the United States. As an oncologist and translational researcher, Mukherjee has seen that success, especially with the blockbuster breast cancer drug trastuzumab. Now, he wants to push the boundaries with the newest tech on the block—CAR-T cell therapy. Debatably placed between a pharmaceutical product and a procedure, it uses a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer.

Ever since the first product Kymriah, from Swiss pharma major Novartis, meant for ALL—a type of blood cancer—hit the market in 2017, people have marvelled at the technology. Equally, they’ve baulked at the price—$475,000. Gilead’s Yescarta is slightly cheaper at $373,000.  

Both Novartis and Gilead have filed patents in India. But before they figure out differential pricing or even make up their mind about offering this extremely complex therapy in India, a fledgeling startup is counting CAR-T cells.

Less than a year old, Immuneel has a formidable founding team: Biocon founder and chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Boston-based 5AM Ventures founder and life-sciences professional Kush Parmar, and Mukherjee, who has founded four other cancer therapeutics companies. Six months ago, on a lark, the team raised $15 million in venture philanthropy from some healthcare czars and venture capitalists, including Khosla Ventures in California. 

For the longest while, believes Parmar, complex cancer therapies have focused on the developed world. The discrepancy, therefore, between what is available in the West and what is available in India is glaring. A cross-border company bringing US technologies to India to become viable and better was never the model. “We have the inverse; take phenomenal technologies from the US, where they face a very crowded market. And because these are life-threatening disorders, not rare diseases, the new tech becomes possible and viable in India,” Parmar says. At a fraction of the prevailing price—$50,000—Immuneel intends to shake things up, not just CAR-Ts. 

The West is debating whether to bring cell therapy from last-ditch to front line. Whether to continue leading with ineffective chemotherapy only to land at cell therapy later, or whether to swap the last-ditch and frontline, add combination therapies in between and change the universe of cancer care for good. After all, the first patient to have received CART-T at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010 remains cancer-free till date.

Developed countries, however, are restricted by their own complex regulatory and payer environment.

AUTHOR

Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

View Full Profile

Available exclusively to subscribers of The Ken India

This story is a part of The Ken India edition. Subscribe. Questions?

MOST POPULAR

Annual Subscription

12-month access to 200+ stories, archive of 800+ stories from our India edition. Plus our premium newsletters, Beyond The First Order and The Nutgraf worth Rs. 99/month or $2/month each for free.

Rs. 2,750

Subscribe
 

Quarterly Subscription

3-month access to 60+ new stories with 3-months worth of archives from our India edition. Plus our premium newsletters, Beyond The First Order and The Nutgraf worth Rs. 99/month or $2/month each for free.

Rs. 1,750

Subscribe
 

Single Story

Instant access to this story for a year along with comment privileges.

Rs. 500

Subscribe
MOST POPULAR

Annual Subscription

12-month access to 150+ stories from Southeast Asia.

$ 120

Subscribe
 

Quarterly Subscription

3-month access to 35+ stories from Southeast Asia.

$ 50

Subscribe
 

Single Story

Instant access to this story for a year along with comment privileges.

$ 20

Subscribe

Questions?

What is The Ken?

The Ken is a subscription-only business journalism website and app that provides coverage across two editions - India and Southeast Asia.

What kind of stories do you write?

We publish sharp, original and reported stories on technology, business and healthcare. Our stories are forward-looking, analytical and directional — supported by data, visualisations and infographics.

We use language and narrative that is accessible to even lay readers. And we optimise for quality over quantity, every single time.

What do I get if I subscribe?

For subscribers of the India edition, we publish a new story every weekday, a premium daily newsletter, Beyond The First Order and a weekly newsletter - The Nutgraf.

For subscribers of the Southeast Asia edition, we publish a new story three days a week and a weekly newsletter, Strait Up.

The annual subscription will get you complete, exclusive access to our archive of previously published stories for your edition, along with access to our subscriber-only mobile apps, our premium comment sections, our newsletter archives and several other gifts and benefits.

Do I need to pay separately for your premium newsletters?

Nope. Paid, premium subscribers of The Ken get our newsletters delivered for free.

Does a subscription to the India edition grant me access to Southeast Asia stories? Or vice-versa?

Afraid not. Each edition is separate with its own subscription plan. The India edition publishes stories focused on India. The Southeast Asia edition is focused on Southeast Asia. We may occasionally cross-publish stories from one edition to the other.

Do you offer an all-access joint subscription for both editions?

Not yet. If you’d like to access both editions, you’ll have to purchase two subscriptions separately - one for India and the other for Southeast Asia.

Do you offer any discounts?

No. We have a zero discounts policy.

Is there a free trial I can opt for?

We don’t offer any trials, but you can sign up for a free account which will give you access to the weekly free story, our archive of free stories and summaries of the paid stories. You can stay on the free account as long as you’d like.

Do you offer refunds?

We allow you to sample our journalism for free before signing up, and after you do, we stand by its quality. But we do not offer refunds.

I am facing some trouble purchasing a subscription. What can I do?

Please write to us at [email protected] detailing the error or queries.