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Tata moves into medical research

Company joins effort to thwart a protein linked to disease. Deal represents new direction for the India-based giant.

India's Tata Consultancy Services is known mainly for developing software and providing computer support, but now the company plans to develop building blocks for medicine.

The Life Sciences Organization, a new group within Tata, has linked up with Congenia, a biotech specialist in Italy, to devise molecules to counteract the effects of P66, a human protein associated with diseases related to aging. The diseases were discovered by Congenia.

"They did the biological reasoning to determine that the protein is related to the aging process. Our task is to determine several molecules that could suppress the activity of the protein," M. Vidyasagar, executive vice president and head of Tata's advanced-technology activities, said in an interview.

If Tata can come up with a viable molecule, Congenia will then subsequently conduct the animal and human studies in Tata's facilities.

The life sciences group remains somewhat experimental. Tata hasn't fully worked out all of the aspects of the business model, Vidyasagar said, and the group will not take on additional clients until after the Congenia deal, which is expected to last 18 months.

Still, Vidyasagar said that conceivably, molecular outsourcing could cut the time it takes to deliver a new drug to market by 10 percent and reduce costs by close to 50 percent for a company developing a new drug. Life sciences start-ups with this sort of arrangement could then spend more time discovering new proteins.

The move into drug development is part of an ambitious growth plans of Mumbai-based Tata. The company wants to be one of the top 10 IT service providers worldwide (it's currently around 14th) and challenge IBM and Accenture in consulting. It has also begun to build up a division that will design hardware. The company plans to

Like IBM and other large software companies, Tata has created and marketed software for the health care and drug industries. In June, the company released Bio-Suite, a set of tools for bioinformatics. Tata also provides support services for pharmaceutical companies.

Developing molecules for medicine, however, represents a completely new discipline. "You can say that again," Vidyasagar said. "But our CEO has been very supportive."

To this end, about four years ago Vidyasagar began to recruit chemists and other pharmaceutical specialists.

Tata will also outsource some of the work on the Congenia contract. Some of the wet chemistry and crystallography work will be carried out by a subcontractor called Altiora Ventures in Israel.

Over time, if its life sciences group succeeds, Tata could also possibly expand from simply conducting research in IT and chemistry to actually discovering proteins.

"It is not out of the question," Vidyasagar said.