NEW DELHI: Cancer Patients Aid Association, which has won a seven-year legal battle against Swiss drugmaker Novartis’ attempt to patent anti-leukemia drug Glivec, is ironically headed by a former country head of a multi-national medical products company. The Supreme Court on Monday rejected Novartis’ efforts to patent anti-leukemia drug Glivec (beta crystal form of imatinib mesylate) in India. YK Sapru-headed Cancer Patients Aid Association (CPAA), which fought relentlessly from 2006 to keep prices of this cancer drug in check in the country, has its provenience in a little girl’s fight against leukemia.
Moved by three-year-old Jaya Jhabbar’s struggle with the life-threatening medical condition, Sapru, a pharma professional who retired as president of Johnson & Johnson’s India operations in 1999, decided to fund her treatment by chipping in with a few friends. Jaya survived. She now lives in Gwalior and has three children. The lady’s triumph over leukemia was a fitting reward for Sapru who, armed with a typewriter and Rs500 in funds, went on to start CPAA in 1970 with his journalist wife Rekha.
A year later, and with some more helping hands, the organisation started cancer screening clinics and awareness programmes in the country. It now helps cancer patients with counselling, diet, rehabilitation and follow-ups with doctors. CPAA now has centres in several places including Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Pune.
“In our initial days, we realised that the medical fraternity focused only on the tumour while managing cancer. But the turmoil that accompanies cancer takes a toll in many ways,” Sapru told ET. “We started by helping with whatever we could—counselling, money, accommodation, transportation and employment-—while the treatment was on, and education for children.” In 1994, CPAA entered into a partnership with New India Assurance Co to offer cancer insurance policy.
“Today we have over 12,000 policy holders,” Sapru said. CPAA has proactively intervened in a series of cases being fought by big pharma and generic drugmakers in Indian courts. Besides the Glivec case, it has also intervened to make a case for cheaper drugs in the Bayer Corp-Cipla battle over the kidney cancer drug Sorefenib Tosylate.
“We will continue to intervene in such cases in the interest of patients. We have already initiated an intervention in case of Herceptin, sent our reservation to the patent office,” Sapru said. Herceptin (Trastuzumab) is a breast cancer drug marketed by Roche. Interestingly, even while dealing with a grim subject like cancer, CPAA has found time and the resources to be creative.
In early 2000, CPAA and its agency O&M won a series of awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for the campaigns they created, mostly urging people to quit smoking. Almost from its inception, CPAA has roped in actors to promote its cause. Raj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai and Vivek Oberoi are among many that have provided star power.
“A small seed we planted decades ago has grown into big tree with many branches. I want every state to adopt CPAA’s core movement and would love to help many more organisations to grow like ours,” Sapru said.