30 Jan 2009

Is there any sector hotter than biotechnology today?

The number of biotech companies in Canada has soared more than 75% in the past 20 years, and they are spread out across the country. In fact, Canada has become a training ground for leaders, exporting talent to the rest of the world. What's more, it leads the world in the opportunities available to women.

Here are two women on top of their game:

Dr. Kathleen Pritchard, senior scientist in the Division of Medical Oncology and professor at the University of Toronto and clinical director of the Ontario Clinical Oncology group.

Ms. Pritchard credits her career in health sciences to her home town.

She grew up in Deep River, Ontario a stone's throw from Chalk River, home to Atomic Energy Research. Dr. Pritchard describes it fondly as being "in the middle of nowhere with between 2,000 and 5,000 people and had more PhDs per square inch than anywhere in the universe."

She's only half kidding. "There were lots of people who walked down the street thinking so hard they ran into telephone polls. We regarded them as eccentric scientists."

While neither of her parents were scientists, Dr. Pritchard says she and her friends were introduced to science by the time they could walk.

"Science was everywhere; particularly physics. We were all told science was the most interesting thing to do. I had a high school graduating class of 33 kids and seven of them enrolled in nuclear physics."

That was in 1964. Dr. Pritchard went on to honors science at Queens University before moving on to medicine. "I like working with patients and applying new treatments but I was also very interested in how you proved things."

It was in a third-year autopsy conference where she had to do an autopsy on a patient whose breast cancer had recurred after 15 years that she became interested in the disease.

Since then, Dr. Pritchard has gone on to play a key role in clinical breast cancer research and has advanced the standard of care for breast cancer patients worldwide.

"Breast cancer has turned into a disease with all kinds of targeted therapy and I'm interested in going into big clinical trials and picking out either retrospectively or by doing special studies in advance the groups of patients that will benefit most from therapy. That's a lot of what I do now," she says.

"I fell backwards into medicine but it was perfect for me because it's very practical and yet there is a lot of science. Even when you see patients, you can observe something that leads you to go back and ask a question and talk to scientists or pathologists and say 'how can we study this better?' "

Lyndal Walker, head of the Canadian commercialization organization for Abraxis Bioscience.

Ms. Walker's father steered her toward a career in nursing 20 years ago in Australia. A move to Canada, and the realization she was bored with her work led her to the University of Windsor where she took a degree in science, knowing she would pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

"I was ready for a career change, and I wanted to set myself up for a career that would allow me to take a leadership role," says Ms. Walker.

"I was a prefect at my school. I was that personality that wanted to step up to the plate and so I targeted a career in the pharmaceutical industry. I started in a very junior level, but I was willing to take an opportunity and work hard."

Today, as head of the Canadian commercialization organization for Abraxis Bioscience Ms. Walker's role takes her around the globe to open up new markets for the company.

"We are providing a practice change drug in the treatment of breast cancer," Ms. Walker says.

"We launched the product 18 months ago. Within 12 months of having the drug approved in Canada we've had it reimbursed. We are getting the word out and explaining how it works, that's part of the biotech process. You are educating people about the new technology and what the impact is."

"I still wake up everyday loving what I do," Ms. Walker says. "The biotech industry is a very fast paced, evolving sometimes volatile business but you learn so much about yourself, about people and the process. It's a very exciting place to be. I don't think people should be fearful of it. It is a growing market."


28 Jan 2009

Korea can be a leader of global biotech industry'

Health care will change dramatically over the next 10 years, from treating the sick to utilizing a kind of digital health care system that prevents possible diseases, a global biotech investor said.

"In 2020, we are going to live in a blackberry centric, a kind of digital health care world," said Steven Burrill, head of Burrill & Company, a San Francisco-based life sciences merchant bank.

"As you walk into a store, you put some blood or urine or some biological sample onto a chip ... And as you come out from the store they will say that you should take medicine or you've got breast cancer or diabetes.

"So we are going to move healthcare from treating the sick to plugging you into a system that treats (your health) well and preemptively," Burrill said. "We are going to have a lot of data streaming in telling us what is going on about your health."

The transformation of health care can happen, he said, by applying the idea to existing technology. And in this respect, Korea, a leader in electronics, information technology and software, will have opportunities to lead in the biotech industry, he said.

"Koreans have opportunities to be a leader of that. Nobody is the leader of that today," he said.

The CEO was in Seoul on Monday to "seek business opportunities" here.

Burrill has been involved in the biotechnology industry for 40 years and is one of its most influential figures. His company is the world's third largest bio-fund management firm and manages an estimated $1 billion in financial resources.

The company previously invested in state-sponsored biotech funds in the United States and Malaysia. Burrill was named one of the world's top 50 visionaries by the journal Scientific American in 2002.

He met Vice Knowledge Economy Minister Rim Che-min and expressed his interest in contributing to a "new growth engine fund" proposed by the government.

The purpose of the fund would be to support businesses involved in cutting-edge technologies and sustaining the country's future growth, the ministry said.

On Jan. 13, the Korean government announced that it will support the development of 17 future-oriented growth businesses, including biotechnology companies, by injecting more than 13.6 trillion won into the fund. It hopes to attract up to 90.5 trillion won worth of investments from the private sector. To lure private investment, the ministry will establish a 250 billion won fund for new growth engines this year, with the total to expand to 3 trillion won by 2013.

The health care transformation has the potential to solve the problem of dramatically increasing costs and the limited amount of health care resources, Burrill said.

"Koreans spent 6 percent of their GDP on healthcare. In the next seven years, health care in the U.S. will cost $2 trillion to $4 trillion," he said.

Health care systems around the world must change because their current approach may lead to bankruptcy, the CEO said.

"And so as from investors' view, there will be an exciting opportunity to not only develop the technology but to bring in technology from elsewhere in the world here to Korea and to be in this kind of the 21 century medicine world," he added.


26 Jan 2009

College launches program to train people for biotech jobs

Barry felt a special bond with the room full of strangers whom she was addressing.

Like them, she knows what it means to change careers.

“I was once where you’re sitting right now,” Ms. Barry said at a recent orientation for 19 students who will participate in a new 15-week program to train people for jobs in biomanufacturing.

The program, which begins Monday at the Mount Wachusett Community College facility in Devens, is funded through a $1.6 million U.S. Department of Labor Grant. All the sessions will be held there.

Ms. Barry, director of quality control for Bionostics’ Devens facility, explained that she was once a teacher. “During Prop 2-1/2 my job was eliminated. I decided to go back to school. I had a background in biology. So I did it, and here I am today.

“I know you’re probably nervous, a little uncertain,” the Mount Wachusett alumna said during the orientation. “The fact that you’re here, I think, is commendable. You’re taking the first steps and that’s great.”

Classroom instruction and practical laboratory sessions will be combined to give students skills and knowledge for manufacturing and quality-control positions in biotech.

“The economy is going to turn around and when it does, the region of the country that has the best educated work force will come out of this recession sooner than other parts of the country,” said MWCC president Daniel M. Asquino.

Mr. Asquino told the students of the large investment the college has made in the physical plant. “All of this is new,” he said pointing to the laboratory the students will be working in. “And in many cases you’re going to be the first students who will be using this equipment.”

“The investment was made because we realize the role our college plays in providing an educated work force for the region,” Mr. Asquino said.

Lara Dowland, chairwoman of the college’s Biotechnology, Biomanufacturing Department, noted the tremendous potential for growth in the industry. “This industry is not at full realization yet, so the job opportunities will continue to grow for graduates.”

Recruitment will begin March 15 for the second work force training program session, scheduled to begin in August.

Recent high school graduates as well as career-changers with a strong background in mathematics, biology and chemistry are eligible to apply for the program.

Classes will be three days a week, seven hours a day, at the Devens campus.

The program will be repeated the next three years for six 15-week sessions. The grant covers student tuition, fees, equipment and supplies. Students will buy their own textbook, which they retain as reference.

Information sessions on the program will be Feb. 9 and March 9 at 5:30 p.m. at the Devens campus, 27 Jackson Road.

Prospective students interested in obtaining information about the Biomanufacturing Workforce Training Program should contact Tami Morin at (978) 630-9578 or tmorin@mwcc.mass.edu.


24 Jan 2009

Consumers in Asia ready for benefits of biotechnology derived foods

Consumers in Asia, especially India, China, Philippines are ready to accept the benefits of biotechnology derived foods, according to a consumer survey by the Asian Food Information Centre (AFIC).

The Asia region resource centre on nutrition, health and food safey has concluded that biotech foods will likely become an increasing and well accepted feature of the Asian diet in the light of the region's grwoing demand for high volumes of food.

Currently, the only genetically modified (GM or biotech) crop grown commercially in India is Bt Cotton but the government's policy leans towards bigger use of biotech food crops in the near future.

Field and other levels of trials are already on vis a vis a range of biotech crops including Bt brinjal, okra etc.

In 2008, the government simplified, for biotech companies, the currently multi-level and complex trials made mandatory thus far before a biotech crop can come to field trials.

Officially, though, the sceintific establishment has plumped for hybrids over biotech in food crops in the last few decades.

That notwithstanding, the AFIC survey "Consumer Perception on Acceptance of biotech Food in Asia", conducted by Nielsen across five Asian countries inlcuding Idnia, Japan, China, Philippines and S Korea, has found that in India, a significant 95% of consumers support plant biotechnology related to sustainable food production; 84% of Indians are ready to purchase biotech food such as tastier tomato, cheaper food staples adn foods/cooking oil with a healthier fat profile: more confident with food safety levels in the country, vis a vis other Asian countries surveyed.

The survey also contends that 70% of Indians strongly believe that food biotechnology will bring benefits in the next few years whiel 68% are sastified with the information provided on food labels. 70% of consumes surveyed, it said, had a neutral or favourable impression of biotech use in food production.

The AFIC survey has also maintained that that Asian consumers, unlike EU and US consumers, ranked expiry date as the "most important" information lookoed for while reading food labelsand that they did not perceive the presence of biotech ingredients as an additional labelling item.

"Food biotechnology is not a priority food safety concern among consumers. Teh important concerns are pesticide residues, food poisoning, food from unknown source and improper handling of food," the AFIC contended in a statement.

The survey itself maintains " Asian consumers rated reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food, foolowed by increasing the production of food staples in the world, thereby reducing world hunger, as the most important crop production factors related to sustainable food production."

Accordign to Dr George Fuller, ED of the AFIC " It is encouraign to note that 84% of Indians are ready to purchase biotech food to experience its benefits and are the most confident with the food safety levels in the country, vis a vis Asian counterparts. This is good news for India, as the government considers crop biotechnolgoy as the strategic element to increase productivity of food. "

In additin to the findings from India, the survey findings from China contends that while 94% of Chinese consumers support plant biotechnology related to sustainable food production.

The level stands at 92% in Philippines, 71% in S Korea and a much lower 67% in Japan. 82% of the Chinese consumers surveyed preferred nutritionally enhanced soy products, while 98% of those surveyed in the Philippines preferred rice and biotech cooking oil with reduced saturated and transfats.

Korean consumers surveyed favoured cooking oil and foods with a healthier oil profile while in Japan, freshness and taste were the most preferred qualities looked for in food.

The survey said that Philippines and Chinese consumers surveyed were also confident with the safety levels in their country. Ironically, biotech experts worldwide have maintained that safety in biotech foods is the key focus in this, the second decade of its existence worldwide.


21 Jan 2009

Skilled workers needed for biotech jobs

Biotechnology remains a job creation engine for California despite the financial gridlock that threatens to starve smaller biotech companies of the capital they need to turn lab discoveries into new treatments, the industry's Northern California trade association said.

But the group, BayBio, said many biomedical jobs may go unfilled because the state's programs in science education aren't meeting the demand.

That conclusion was part of the annual report BayBio issued Wednesday showcasing the accomplishments of California life sciences companies. It was certainly the most poignant message in the report, given the U.S. environment of layoffs and climbing unemployment rates.

BayBio released its Impact 2009 study in San Francisco, drawing a spin-off crowd from the thousands of executives and investors gathered nearby for the industry's big J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference at the Westin St. Francis.

The trade group recited its usual inventory of noteworthy accomplishments from the Northern California life sciences cluster - the oldest, largest and most productive in the nation. BayBio uses the data to lobby Sacramento and Washington legislators for tax breaks and other policies to foster the growth of the industry. Such measures are more important than ever as the credit crunch continues to hamper biotech innovation, said BayBio president Matt Gardner.

But a concern in California is a category of positions that remain open because the state can't train people fast enough.

Biomedical companies and hospitals need licensed clinical laboratory scientists to carry out diagnostic tests and other lab tasks to support medical treatment and research. If the state quadrupled its output of such workers, Gardner said, it wouldn't meet the need in hospitals alone. And more such workers are being sought by companies that are steadily developing an array of gene-based tests to match each patient with the best treatment, part of a biotech approach called "personalized medicine."

"The biotech industry is ready, willing and able to add new jobs," Gardner said.

But Gardner said California's budget crisis may make it difficult to beef up educational programs in science, one of the core recommendations of the trade group. "Alarmingly, the U.S. Department of Education ranked California student achievement 48 out of 50 states in eighth-grade science education in 2007," BayBio said in its report.

Budget constraints could force more biotech companies to focus their waning resources on a smaller number of scientific projects if the flow of capital doesn't improve, Gardner said. To help struggling companies that have not yet achieved profitability, the state and federal governments should allow those firms greater flexibility to convert their operating losses into tax rebates or offsets on future profit, BayBio said.

Biotech, medical device and diagnostic test developers contribute more than $22 billion to the state payroll with about 264,000 jobs in the sector, the trade group said. California companies have 1,294 treatments on the market, and another 738 in later-stage clinical testing.

Northern California has about 4,083 life sciences companies, compared with about 4,646 in Southern California. But the Northern cluster has 463 experimental treatments in late-stage testing, while Southern California has 275, BayBio said.


20 Jan 2009

Biohacking: The Open Wetware Future

Much of the infotech revolution erupted from garages (Hewlett Packard, Apple, Google), and the same thing is beginning to happen with biotech. Biohacking is in its infancy, but the tools and knowledge to make novel organisms is becoming cheaper and more widely available all the time. Open wetware is the wave of the biotech future. For example, the Associated Press reports:

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly...

Patterson, the computer programmer, wants to insert the gene for fluorescence into yogurt bacteria, applying techniques developed in the 1970s.

She learned about genetic engineering by reading scientific papers and getting tips from online forums. She ordered jellyfish DNA for a green fluorescent protein from a biological supply company for less than $100. And she built her own lab equipment, including a gel electrophoresis chamber, or DNA analyzer, which she constructed for less than $25, versus more than $200 for a low-end off-the-shelf model.

Patterson is just at the beginning of our biotech future as recently limned by physicist Freeman Dyson:

The domestication of biotechnology in everyday life may also be helpful in solving practical economic and environmental problems. Once a new generation of children has grown up, as familiar with biotech games as our grandchildren are now with computer games, biotechnology will no longer seem weird and alien. In the era of Open Source biology, the magic of genes will be available to anyone with the skill and imagination to use it. The way will be open for biotechnology to move into the mainstream of economic development, to help us solve some of our urgent social problems and ameliorate the human condition all over the earth. Open Source biology could be a powerful tool, giving us access to cheap and abundant solar energy...

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur.

Seed has an interesting interview with DIYBio co-founder Mackenzie Cowell. The nascent DIYBio aims

...to help make biology a worthwhile pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers who value openness and safety. This will require mechanisms for amateurs to increase their knowledge and skills, access to a community of experts, the development of a code of ethics, responsible oversight, and leadership on issues that are unique to doing biology outside of traditional professional settings.

Among other things, DIYBio wants to build a public wetlab where citizen scientists have access to the tools needed to advance their projects at minimal cost.

But what about safety? After all, some garage infotech hackers unleashed destructive computer viruses into the internet. Shouldn't we fear that garage biohackers will release actual viruses into the biosphere? Indeed, this will happen, but what's the best way to protect ourselves from malicious biotech viruses and other organisms? More regulation and government restrictions on access to biotech equipment and materials? In his Seed interview, Cowell gets it pretty much right:

All the hazardous sequences are available publicly from GenBank, etc.: Ebola, H5N1, the 1918 plague; they're all there. DIYbio won't change that. We're looking to mostly focus on doing wet lab work in a very public, transparent group setting. So that if anyone — a neighbor, a governmental agent, a journalist — wants to know what is going on, it's evident what we are working on. Forming that community is the first defense so that the 99.9999 percent of the group who are positive will stop the .0001 percent of the group that's negative. Today, at the ground floor, I think it's best if we blaze a path forward in a very public and open way. A small minority may have unleashed computer viruses over the years, but it's the computer hacking community at large who created many of the solutions that safeguard us from them.

Back in 2004, I argued that the best bio-defense is a robust bio-offense:

Biodefense depends not on abandoning technology or appeasing our potential adversaries, but on nurturing a robust biotechnology. Remember, we are talking about "dual use" technologies—for both offense and defense...

...let us assume the worst: that fiendishly clever evildoers could devise some sort of superplague that would kill off some huge fraction of humanity. A plague as deadly as Ebola, more communicable than the common cold, and with a latency period of several weeks to allow it to spread through unwitting populations.

What would it take to counter such a pathogen? A dynamic and extensive diagnostic and biomedical manufacturing system that could deploy multiple levels of defense, including vaccines, new antibiotics, and other novel targeted therapies. To do that, we need to move ahead with innovative biotech.

Fortunately we are well on our way to developing such a biotechnological infrastructure. The future will see a system in which first responders, perhaps using biolabs on a chip, will be able to decode the genomes of pathogens in hours. Once decoded, biotechnologists could quickly identify essential metabolic circuits and then design therapeutic molecules to disrupt them, thus preventing the spread of the bioterror agent. For example, consider neuraminidase inhibitors like Tamiflu, and Relenza which halt flu infections if taken shortly after exposure or onset of symptoms. Similarly, researchers have discovered highly effective compounds like adefovir that block anthrax's deadly edema factor toxin.

Perhaps in the future, labs could design, test, and manufacture vast quantities of antibodies to protect people from bioattacks from newly bioengineered pathogens. Novel vaccines will also be part of any anti-bioterror defense effort.

Because of all of the above, it is vital that bad policies not be permitted to stifle biotechnological research and development. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to stop future bioterrorists from dreaming up and deploying new bioengineered pathogens. But a robust biotechnology should be able to confine the effects of such attacks to no more than the number of people who are killed by car bombs today. Future bioterrorist attacks will be nightmares for those affected, but they ought not be sufficient to destabilize civilization.


17 Jan 2009

Pinoy scientist pushes biotech crops to reduce hunger in RP

A Filipino scientist is pushing for the propagation of biotechnology crops in the country to help reduce the incidents of hunger and malnutrition.

Dr. Rhodora Aldemita, senior program officer of the International Service for the Acquisition of AgriBiotech Applications (ISAAA), said biotechnology is a most viable alternative system to boost yields of crops that have been genetically enhanced to provide consumers with adequate nutrients.

Aldemita said agricultural biotechnology has succeeded in increasing yields while reducing dependence on chemical-based fertilizers, pesticides, nematicides and herbicides.

She said Filipino biotechnologists have succeeded in arming crops with resistance to pests, like the development of papaya ringspot virus (PRSV)-resistant papaya.

Among the most successful genetically modified crops in the country is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn, which was introduced in Philippine farms in 2002.

“Through advances in plant biotechnology it is now more than possible to improve the nutritional quality of food,” Aldemita said.

Numerous biotechnological studies to improve the nutritional quality of crops have been conducted such as vitamin A rice or Golden rice, she said.

Work is also being done to develop maize with low phytic acid and increased iron absorption, canola and soybean seeds with increased lysine, an essential amino acid usually absent in grains; iron-rich rice with soybean ferritin gene and potato with increased inulin, a low-calorie fiber for increased mineral absorption and colon-cancer prevention.

“Not only does biotechnology increase the nutritional value of a crop, but it also helps in ensuring that the crops reach more people in their best state through the introduction of delayed ripening characteristics,” Aldemita said.


12 Jan 2009

2nd World Congress Of Industrial Biotechnology-2009

2nd World Congress Of Industrial Biotechnology-2009

With warmly support and great contributions from our participants, BIT's 1 st Congress of Industrial Biotechnology , with a theme of "New Starting Line for Decision Makers in Bio-economy Era", was held successfully on May 18, 2008 in Hangzhou, China. Totally, there were nearly 400 participants from more than 30 countries and regions attended the Congress. Dr. Nancy W. Y. Ho, Research Professor, School of Chemical Engineering, Purdue University, USA and Dr. James Zhang, VP of Business Development, Mendel Biotechnology, Inc. USA gave wonderful speeches at the keynote forum. Participants from universities, biotech companies and key-decision makers from government discussed the new achievements and trends of Industrial Biotechnology at 26 parallel sessions.

Following the successful outcome and encouraging results of the 1 st t congress, we are proud to announce the 2 nd congress to continually promote the developments of Industrial Biotechnology . The mission of this congress is to initiate a sustainable platform for exchanging up-to the minute upstream and downstream achievements, industrial needs and research opportunities of industrial biotechnology fields in Asia Pacific Rim. As Industrial Biotechnology is currently experiencing a dramatic increasing, it has become a key element of the interactions between nature and society and is considered a key input for Bio-economic development. This focused event pays tribute to the growing significance of Industrial Biotechnology , we cordially welcome you to join us and witness the advances in Industrial Biotechnology together.

The program of the coming 2 nd congress promises to be very interesting for both basic scientists and executives who are working in the field of biotechnology, they will offer complete updates of recent developments and present the latest products and technologies which can be used to make our lives less polluted. Separate sessions will target Renewable Bio-energy & Biofuels; Industrial Enzymes & Microbiology; Bioprocesses for Therapeutics; Biomaterials and Chemical Bioprocesses; Environment and Cleantech Biotechnology; Marine Industrial Biotechnology respectively. Speakers will present state-of-the-art knowledge in this fast moving field. These sessions will certainly encourage the development of new scientific ideas and utilizations of Industrial Biotechnology .

Located in the northwest part of the country, Seoul is the capital of South Korea with a long history. As the host city of 1988 Summer Olympic Games, Seoul attracts thousands of tourists with its impeccable blend of the modern trails and the traditional ways. The modernity and the old cultures have interlinked with each other to create an intoxicating atmosphere in the city.

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