Business Times

Demystifying biotechnology

By Mangala R Liyanage, Ph.D.

I have a long standing interest in trying to initiate a strong biotechnology industry in Sri Lanka that may scale up to those existing in the developed countries over a period of time. Given the unprecedented awakening of the nation I believe this would be the prime time to begin this movement and increase the interest among relevant parties. The purpose of this article is to create a platform for a long needed discussion to explore our potentials to become a biotechnologically advanced nation with a view toward boosting our economy. It seems that there is little faith in biotechnology in Sri Lanka due to the feeling that we have missed the so called “biotechnology revolution”. The point I raise here is do we really need a revolution to establish a biotech industry unique to our nation and our needs as well as based on available resources?

Whether global or regional, when pandemics start to spread, they have a severe fallout at all levels of society. A woman wears a mask while on the Beijing subway. China's official swine flu death toll tripled in the past two weeks after the government ordered more accurate reporting of fatalities amid suspicions of a cover-up. AFP

Biotechnology is a broad field spanning a vast array of sub disciplines such as genomics, proteomics, lipidomics, pharmaceutics, etc.; therefore, it is not possible to address all of these aspects of biotechnology in this introductory article. Thus the contents presented here focus on certain aspects of biotechnology that could be implemented under an economy such as Sri Lanka’s and how to thrive as an industry relying on the rich home-grown scientific knowledge base.

The greatest news about modern day biotechnology is that the infrastructure development for biotechnological applications is not nearly as expensive as it once was. This is due to the strong dependence of biotechnology on optical detection in most cases, especially a technique known as fluorescence sensing. In part due to the advancement and the mass production of solid state optical detectors and light sources, the fabrication cost of these instruments has taken a nose-dive. However, this drastic reduction in fabrication cost still does not reflect in many commercial instruments. In order to take the advantage of the cheap production cost there is a need for starting up our own industry to fabricate high-tech instrumentation using the knowledge from native members of the scientific community.

Having gained a brief understanding about the instrumental requirement, attention should be directed toward high quality bio-chemicals, another key aspect of a successful biotech industry. The conceptual basis for a study in biotechnology is target recognition, generating a signal for this event, and finally detection of said signal. Tagging biomolecules with some sort of reporting elements (radioisotope labels, fluorescent dyes, etc.) has been widely used in the biotech arena. With the advancement of tagging technology with biomolecules with fluorescence dyes (bioconjugation chemistry), most of the radioisotope based technologies are being replaced by fluorescence based biotech applications for their ease of use and increased safety. The bitter half of the fruit would be finding the capital for setting up a venture possessing the industrial scale manufacturing capacity for these biochemicals. The capital could scale up to millions of dollars leaving this step as a limiting factor. The good news is this would only be a single time investment that could be recovered from within the first few years of successful operation down the line.

It would be naïve to attempt to sell a point not entailing economic viability especially when dealing with a large sum of money. The motivation for this sort of venture can be rationalized by illustrating some examples where successful implementation of these biotechnological approaches can be used to accomplish the economic targets. The following paragraphs will deal with a handful of areas where a substantial amount of success can be gained considering the roles played by biotechnology in these fields.

Diagnostics applications.

It is obvious that we spend enormous amounts of foreign exchange annually on imports intended for diagnostic purposes. What if we try to save at least a fraction of this money by developing these diagnostic kits in house by using cost effective biotechnology approaches? One may think that this is a formidable task beyond our reach as well as capabilities; however, through the use of innovative discoveries of new assay formats for disease diagnosis, we can save a large amount of money. These discoveries would be possible by utilizing the training in multidisciplinary areas important to biotechnology.

This is where the economical detection platforms based on fluorescence sensing play a major role. Early diagnosis of most of the disease conditions help in fast recovery and effective treatments using smaller amounts of pharmaceutical products than required by late stage progression. These early diagnosis methodologies require very sensitive detection methods which could be developed using technologies previously described. For example, cancer and cancer related ailments are projected to become the world’s leading cause of death. More than 28 million people around the world are living with cancer today and without greater progress in detection, prevention, and treatment that number could triple by 2030. Early diagnosis of cancers is the key to successful surgical or chemotherapeutic procedures, but current state of the art detection technologies are way beyond the affordability of people in the developing countries. This is a field where we make a large amount of progress in terms of bringing down the cost for early diagnosis of diseases.

Agricultural and livestock development

To the best of my knowledge, there is a fairly well developed genetics programme in Sri Lanka to improve the features of agriculturally important crops. However, we have not explored the entire spectrum of biotechnological approaches for this purpose. For example, we could accelerate biomarker (biological species reflecting certain status of a living beings) discovery using high throughput screening methods for either pathogenic targets or targets that promote healthier plant and animal life. These studies will lead to the discovery of novel pesticides and fertilizers suitable for crops and soil compositions in Sri Lanka. One of the major caveats keeping us from doing extensive studies on these matters is lack of sophisticated equipment required for high throughput screening.

With the increasing demand for dairy and poultry products, there has been a sharp increase in production capacity. To ensure a healthy pool of livestock, periodic diagnosis and immunization is required. These factors put a great burden on our trade deficit due to the huge cost involved in importing these diagnostic kits and vaccines. Typically vaccines and diagnostic kits for veterinary purposes have fewer regulations than those used in humans. Thus, starting up this less costly venture may pave the way to more advanced biotech ventures dealing with human vaccines and diagnostic products.

Food and beverage industry

Safety is the foremost factor for industries based on food and beverage processing. Precise characterization and quantification of the contents therefore needs to be done for every batch especially when they are intended for the export market. The lack of proper characterization equipment keeps most of the products from reaching foreign markets in developed countries. To overcome this, we can develop affordable instruments to be used along with sophisticated characterization methodologies such as immuno assays that are successfully employed in these applications. For instance, presence of afflatoxins (potentially cancer causing) in grain products can be detected using a simple immuno assay based on a technique called fluorescence polarization with relatively inexpensive instrumentation. The beauty of these assays is that they can be implemented in high throughput formats when there is an overwhelming demand. Furthermore, the poor stability of foods and beverages enriched with nutrients has been a great hurdle in these industries. Exploring desired formulations to stabilize the contents can be performed if we have the access to required instrumentation.

Regional and global pandemics

Whether global or regional, when pandemics start to spread, they have a severe fallout at all levels of society. For example, the regional spread of dengue fever has claimed hundreds of lives while hospitalizing thousands; similarly on a global scale, the recent spread of swine flu (H1N1 virus) can affect vast quantities of people across hundreds of nations. It’s been proven that the most effective way to control outbreaks and save lives is immunization of the masses against these pandemics. As a developing country, Sri Lanka is always in a grave situation due to lack or non-existence of vaccines to control these viruses. Therefore, establishing our own biotech industry not only gives us opportunities to have plentiful quantities of vaccines but also to makes them available at a an affordable cost to every one. Another promising use for a vaccine manufacturing program is that there are some vaccines successfully used against certain types of cancers.

Global research outsourcing

Many pharmaceutical and biotech companies around the world have a propensity to outsource some of their work to contract research organizations (CROs). Training of Sri Lankan scientists by a select group of experienced individuals would be necessary, but once completed, and with the purchase of the initial instrumentation required, the operational cost would be so small that we can easily compete with other research organizations elsewhere around the globe. I am very confident that we can lure projects worth millions of dollars after proving our competency to these companies since I have been working under a similar setting. I believe that this handful of scenarios would be helpful to convince both the Sri Lankan legislators and the entrepreneurs keen on emerging technologies to consider the impact that a stable biotech industry would have on our economy.

These ideas emphasize not only financial gain and economic growth of the nation, but would also be a chance to give emerging scientists an opportunity to work under a technologically advanced environment. This would provide them with a foundation to establish their niche for an exciting scientific career without needing to turn toward western countries for their training and development.

(The writer is a researcher at the Macromolecule and Vaccine Stabilization Laboratory, University of Kansas, USA)

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