Hope beyond cure
Assistant professor Suthira Taychakhoonavudh is now hard at work to ensure Thailand has its locally-produced Covid-19 vaccines at a lower price
Suthira Taychakhoonavudh loves teaching. But now wearing a different hat as a CEO and co-founder of Baiya Phytopharm, many times she feels the stress is almost too much to bear.
"All the pressure that I experienced during my academic and career life was incomparable to the stress from running the company. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night and could not sleep on," said the 36-year-old lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Despite the road full of challenges, today Asst Prof Suthira -- together with another co-founder Assoc Prof Waranyu Poolcharoen -- leads Baiya Phytopharm, a start-up company under Chulalongkorn University, as Thailand's first pharmaceutical company that is able to manufacture medicines and vaccines from the very first step of production.
With locally-made Covid-19 shots now in the pipeline which are expected to be available for public use next year, Suthira is this year chosen as one of the Bangkok Post's Women of the Year in the science and medicine category.
A mother of two, Suthira graduated with a bachelor's and master's from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences before doing a PhD at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, in the United States. Her forte is health economics where she looks to ensure people in Thailand have proper access to medicines.
What she realises, however, is that despite the universal coverage programme, a number of patients are still not able to get the medication they require especially when it comes to expensive ones like cancer drugs. Unfortunately, when Thailand is not able to produce these drugs, the only choice is to rely on those imported from other countries which means a painful medical bill -- a burden for patients themselves.
"The government has invested in a number of [pharmaceutical] research programmes which are only put on the shelf instead of putting them into practice," she added. "So I started questioning why it was like that and if we could do something to improve the situation."
With her own and Waranyu's money, Suthira decided to found Baiya Phytopharm in 2019. The first company under Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences to have entered the CU Innovation Hub, a platform for start-up companies to grow, Baiya Phytopharm owns technology to manufacture recombinant proteins necessary for the production of medicines and vaccines.
Simply put, Baiya Phytopharm is a Thai company that can make drugs and vaccines from scratch.
"The company was in operation even before the world knew of Covid-19. We have developed prototypes and scaled up our production constantly. So when the novel coronavirus hit Thailand early last year, we decided to give it a try. We started using our platform to produce vaccines against Covid-19."
Earlier, Baiya Phytopharm also developed the Baiya Rapid Covid-19 test kit using low-nicotine tobacco leaves. Currently, the test kit is seeking certification from the Food and Drug Administration.
Covid-19 vaccines from Baiya Phytopharm are now expected to be used in clinical studies this year. If things sail through smoothly, Thais will have locally-produced shots against Covid-19 next year. The vaccines, according to Suthira, will be available to the public at cost price.
From a small start-up company with only three staff, Baiya Phytopharm is now a multidisciplinary firm with 30 members, 17 of which are scientists.
For Suthira, making profit is not her ultimate goal for Baiya Phytopharm. She also wishes the company to offer an opportunity for pharmaceutical students and others in the field to have a place to use their knowledge, showcase their talents and to see it as an inspiration to make achievements in life.
"There is nothing in this world that you cannot do. Every goal is achievable unless you give up. At this point, it doesn't matter if the Covid-19 vaccines will succeed or fail. Now that I have all these experiences and a place where graduates can have a career they like and to earn a living, it's already worth it.
"My biggest achievement is to be an inspiration for things that people are passionate about. Others might want to make things that are bigger than vaccines. They might want to build a rocket. So whenever they feel like they're hitting the a dead end, they can look at me and see that even this average woman can do something like this too. And if I can do it, why not them?"