You can go home again: Meet the Johnson & Johnson scientist who’s helping to fight tropical diseases in his homeland
Two decades after leaving India, Anil Koul has returned to helm its Institute of Microbial Technology. For Dengue Awareness Month, we caught up with him to learn how he’s hoping to combat this tropical scourge and another disease that kills over a million worldwide.
Koul, who is on sabbatical from his Belgium-based job as Senior Director and Head of Respiratory Infections Discovery at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, has been named the new director of India’s Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH).
His mission: help India—which has the highest rates of TB in the world—achieve its goal of eliminating the disease by 2025, and develop new drugs for neglected tropical diseases that affect tens of thousands of people in the country, like dengue fever and chikungunya.
Koul called us from his office in Chandigarh to share what he’s already achieved since assuming his new role in January—and what he still hopes to accomplish.
India is a big change from Belgium. Why did you decide to take on this new position?
It was an honor to be asked to serve the country in this capacity. It’s kind of like coming full circle for me.
I’ve been working on tuberculosis in one way or another since my early student days, and I was part of the team at Janssen that discovered and developed the first drug in 45 years to be approved for use in those infected with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.
That approval was a huge milestone. TB kills almost 1.5 million people worldwide every year, and the survival rate for drug-resistant TB is less than 70%.
Since 25% of the world’s cases of tuberculosis are in India, developing new drugs for TB is more important here than anywhere in the world—and IMTECH has a big part to play in their discovery.
Janssen is determined to put its energy and resources toward addressing this huge unmet medical need, regardless of the lack of financial return. So when I asked my manager if I could take a sabbatical to accept this position, the company was incredibly supportive.
Our leadership is committed to making a positive impact on global health. And as a scientist, there’s nothing more powerful than seeing that the work you do in the lab can benefit society.
You’ve been in India for more than four months. Tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced.
The working environment is unlike any job I’ve had in the past. Government organizations are, at times, constrained with bureaucratic processes, but at the same time, I’ve realized that the positive impact you can make as a public servant is quite big. You can touch the lives of many people in a short span of time.
On a personal level, it’s difficult to be away from my family. My wife and our 15-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son are still in Belgium. I try to visit as often as I can, and they’ll come here for the summer.
The responsibilities can be overwhelming at times, but we decided the sacrifice was worth it. The cause was bigger!
More than a third of the world’s population lives in areas at risk for dengue infection, and as many as 400 million people are infected each year. But there are no vaccines against the disease, and there’s no specific medication to treat it.
What other pressing unmet health concerns are you focusing on at IMTECH?
We’re tackling some of the most neglected tropical mosquito-borne viruses, like dengue fever and chikungunya.
More than a third of the world’s population lives in areas at risk for dengue infection, and as many as 400 million people are infected each year. About 500,000 of them develop dengue hemorrhagic fever, a more serious form of the illness that results in about 25,000 deaths.
But there are no vaccines against the disease, and there’s no specific medication to treat it.
The same goes for chikungunya, which is carried by the same type of mosquito as dengue. Outbreaks of chikungunya are more sporadic, so we don’t have good worldwide statistics, but there were about 25,000 cases in India in 2015. There’s no cure, and treatment is currently focused on relieving symptoms.
So we’re hoping to start a collaboration with Nobel Laureate Professor Roger Kornberg from Stanford University and other international partners to develop treatments for both illnesses.
We’re also trying to understand more about the gut microbiome in the Indian population in order to help tackle two other key national challenges: antimicrobial resistance and multi-drug-resistant pathogens.
What is your personal vision for the work you’re doing?
My goal is to create and define a long-term focus for IMTECH so we can align it with key industry partners across the world in new drug discovery projects.
When Paul Stoffels, M.D., Johnson & Johnson’s Worldwide Chairman, Pharmaceuticals, and Chief Scientific Officer, was in India earlier this year, he emphasized Janssen’s commitment to eradicating TB from the face of the Earth, and he’s looking forward to partnering with institutions like IMTECH to realize that mission.
That’s incredibly exciting. I’m basically taking my inspiration from him and trying to make an impact, regardless of the personal challenges, in the country where I was born.