White Biotech Future
According to official documents of the Polish Government, biotechnology should be one of the key elements of modern economy. Three branches are commonly recognized: green, red and white. It is of significant interest to learn what their potential is. In the opinion of the experts of the Polish Biotechnology Committee and the Polish Federation of Biotechnology the future lies in white biotechnology based on agribiotech. The products of white biotechnology perfectly fit the needs of national economy and will be welcomed by the public.
The Polish market (38 million people), just as economic and scientific potentials in biotechnology of the 10 new members from Central and Eastern Europe are important in the United Europe. There are three branches of biotechnology in Poland:
- Green: agribiotech, including the food industry. The public acceptance of genetically modified plants and novel food (GM food) is very low. In 2003, the total area of GM plants was close to 68 million ha, but in Poland there is no commercial harvesting of GM plants (in Europe <100,000 ha). Around 2010, about 90% of the world production of soybean, maize, and cotton will be transgenic. The majority of these three crops for Polish consumption is imported. We will be consumers but not producers of GM products.
- Red: covers medicine and pharmacy, diagnostics and veterinary. Hormones, like insulin, DNA analysis kits, monoclonal diagnostic tests, enzymes and many more are produced commercially in Poland, but at small scale. Gene therapy - a big dream of our society, is still in the clinical phases (including one case in phase III in Poland).
- White: biology and biotechnics (biocata-lysis and bioprocesses) applied for industrial production. The most important goals - sustainable development and progress - are generally accepted by the society. Current achievements are economical and market successes: drugs (e.g. hormones), novel diagnosis methods (e.g. monoclonal antibodies), bioenergy or bioplastics.
Many factors influence the development of commercial biotechnology: entrepreneurial attitude, technical feasibility, infrastructure, availability of capital, legislation and regulations, governmental initiatives in biotechnology and public acceptance.
The Biotechnology Committee at the Polish Academy of Sciences was established in 1987 and the Polish Federation of Biotechnology in 2003. The biotechnology-related issues had been discussed long before that time, however, only among the scientists. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the Polish view on biotechnology was dominated by the American biotechnology. In the last 10 to 15 years, the society has realised that Poland is joining the EU and accepted the rules (e.g. legislation) coming from Brussels.
Modern biotech industry is very limited in Poland. The 'classic biotech' (antibiotics, fermentation, etc.) functions in quite well-organised forms. Yet the industry is too weak to perform independent research and there is no system that would link science with industry. Except for basic research, we observe limited financial support of biotechnology from the government, despite several programmes supporting novel technologies in general. In public perception we observe high similarity to the situation in all European countries. 90% indicate the necessity of legislation and state supervision of biotechnology with EU legislation as reference for national law. The number of people wishing to wider public debate was growing from 47% in 1999 to almost 60% in 2003. The highest support (> 80 %) was for the industry.
Science and University
With highly insufficient financing of the science in general, we observed a high level of biological science in Poland, particularly in basic research. University teaching represents high standard. There are some 2 million students in Poland at more than 100 state universities and some 300 private higher schools (some of them having the academic rights). 21 Polish universities including 6 agricultural universities, 2 medical universities, 4 technical universities teach annually 2,200 MSc. students in biotechnology (approximately 1,700 graduates per year). Seven universities conduct also PhD studies as regular courses.
Participation of Polish researches in the 5th Framework Program gives the best information about the level of science. The number of presented projects with Polish co-ordination totals 654 (192 accepted) and the number of projects involving Polish groups totals 4,292 (1,043 accepted). The number of Polish groups which received EC grants is 1,323 (total value Euro152 million). The most popular was the “Quality of life” programme (1,813 accepted projects) and the projects involving Polish groups (196 accepted), of which 24 had a Polish co-ordinator. The financial support received was Euro29.1 million.
The Polish biotech industry is at an early stage of development. Table 1 shows key figures of the classic chemical and pharmacautical industries (see p. 28). Practically research and development is very limited due to economical situation. Production and trade are mostly generated for the domestic market and the competition of multinational companies is very strong. The analysis foresees the stabilization of production of traditional biotechnological products by the pharmaceutical industry such as antibiotics, steroid hormons, and other microbial products (dextran, alkaloids, vitamins, amino acids etc.). Further progress in this field is connected to the introduction of GMO. One can foresee further development of production of recombinant proteins for therapeutic use. Similarly, there is a promising future for the production of new immunologically active substances (human and veterinary vaccines) and immunosuppressive therapeutics with the use of the in vitro DNA recombination technology and cell fusion (hybridoma). GMO will also be employed for an improved production of blood-derived therapeutics and biopolymers. As far as the production of a new-generation of protein products for therapeutic and diagnostic use is concerned, the application of transgenic plants and transgenic animals provides the highest potential. However, we should take into account the following limiting factors: transmission of scientific achievements into the society, under-investment of scientists and government officers, and last but not least inefficient state administration.
Regulations of the Convention on Biological Diversity have been obeyed in Poland since 1995. Polish collections of genomes include 73,000 genotypes. About 55,000 of them are genomes of plants and animals important for agriculture and food production (special collections of the Ministry of Agriculture); the remaining ones are stored by universities and scientific institutes.
Patents often impede the development of domestic technologies in Poland due to little knowledge of regulations of intellectual property rights in academia. The transfer of new technologies from universities to industry is limited, as well as direct industry/academia co-operations. Unfortunately, most of the biotech patents registered in Poland are from abroad. The number of Polish biotech patents granted (originated in Polish laboratories) was 7 and 72 from abroad (data from 2002). The number of patent applications was 322 from abroad and 41 for domestic, mostly from multinational companies. However, the number of biotechnology related patents is difficult to determine because a separate register of biotechnology is not yet established (see EuroBiotechNews 2/04).
Significant factors limiting the development of the biotechnology industry are:
- Insufficient financing of science and research and development;
- too few science parks and incubators;
- limited numbers of the centers of tech- nology transfer;
- insufficient information flow between industry and academia;
- universities are poorly oriented to the needs of the market;
- industry is not familiar with the innova- tion potential of university research;
- scientists and institutes are ranked mainly according to the number of pub- lications and not motivated for applied research and co-operation with industry.
Another significant factor is brain drain. Many young researches emigrate to Northern America and other countries. “Come back”-programmes should reward young scientists who return to Poland after successful fellowships abroad. Such a programme has been known for a long time in scientific forums, but the financial situation limits establishing the funds. Possibilities for foreign scientists to find employment in Poland is also limited by economic factors.
Financing of high-risk innovation technologies like biotechnology is a difficult problem. This is supported by the state, funds from EU, by companies and through venture capital (very limited, practically doesn't exist in Poland) and Eastern European Funds. Poland does not expect special preferences from EU for getting scientific grants, but investment in scientific infrastructure will be most welcome. Lack of such funds makes labs less competitive.
Trajectories to the Future
What can be done for improvement? The critical factors are the following:
- define strategic aims and clusters for high-tech biotechnology.
- Investment in science parks, especially from the structural fund of EU.
- build platforms for closer contact bet- ween industry and academia.
- establish clear guidelines for academia- industry collaborations.
The factors promoting innovations are well known in the scientific community:
- structures facilitating technology
- new added value products and services - more competitive enterprises;
- suitable environment for business;
- incubators of business development;
- science&technology parks with industry;
- high risk financial support, banks supporting innovative investment;
- legislaton favoring novel technologies;
- acceptance of innovative technologies;
- entrepreneurial attitude;
- technical feasibility and infrastructure.
Clear guidelines for academia-industry collaborations and attractive conditions for firms are of critical importance, for example: taxes, venture capital and protection of intellectual property (including the improvement in European patent system).
However, in the light of common interpretation, we can expect that the future of biotechnology depends on moral dogmas much more than on science and technology. Reports in mass media supported by the “greens” reports on ”patenting a life” and ”cloning of the human being” etc., resulted in mixed feelings. Public perception is of key importance. Modern technology, e.g. genetic engineering, significantly affects the public opinion and reflects the public perception of the future prospects and the conversion of attitudes. The public in general takes biotechnology to be one of a key technology for the future. However, with a considerable respect concerning biosafety and legislation, terms like ”Frankenstein food” are well known and many people are afraid of transgenic food.
We should create a biotech industrial platform in Poland as soon as possible. This will help to create the open and broad co-operation with similar initiatives in European Union. The infrastructure for the development of biotech industrial platform has to be broad and will enable further progress in several key fields: genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics - generally: in well advanced basic research. At the same time we should remember the application of GM plants for industry productions (bioenergy, bioplastics, biodegradable materials etc.). Most probably, we cannot avoid these applications of agribiotechnology. We should take into account the specific features of Polish agriculture and huge potential of Polish farmers, who account for almost 50% of the population.
It has been postulated that in order to reduce the risks related to the use of GMOs in industry, the technological processes using GMO should be under strict control. All risks related to the development of biotechnology concern both the traditional biotechnologies and the use of GMO. We are now in a difficult and emotional period in terms of GMO control; many communities are gripped by some approaching panic and public discussion is dominated by dogmas and believing rather than scientifically based facts. It is not important to assign blame for this. From a scientific view, we should refrain from giving advice for unnecessary protection based on non-scientific considerations. The future prospects of biotechnology in Poland are connected with white biotech based on agribiotech-nology, health industry and services. These major directions of development are directly related to sustainable development of biotechnology together with the ideas covered by the ”Convention on Biological Diversity”.
The data and information presented in this article are based on the report on Polish biotechnology prepared by Prof. Anna Podhajska and co-workers (2003) and a position paper of the Executive Board of the Polish Biotechnology Committee (2004).
Prof. Tomasz Twardowski, Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poznan
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