Definition of biotechnology depends on perspective, editor says

Diana Lin,The China Post

The definition of biotechnology often depends perspective, but the general definition deals with the technology, the objective, and the businesses, Liz Fletcher, senior editor of Nature Biotechnology, said yesterday during the opening ceremony of the 2002 Taipei International Master Forum on Biotechnology.

In her speech, she defined biotechnology and biotechnology companies in her speech.

According to Fletcher, biotechnology is the engineering of molecular biology and genetics to improve the quality of life. One example Fletcher cited was the creation of genetically enhanced goats that are able to produce medicine in their milk.

Generally, developments such as vaccines and immunology, nanotechnology, regenerative medicines, and metabolemics biotechnology are all considered biotechnology. Much of Fletcher’s lecture revolved around the growing biotech industry, which is currently a highly difficult and competitive field, in which few companies survive. It includes having to “turn innovative and often highly speculative discoveries or inventions into products…” and having to brave a highly controversial field. However, as Fletcher humorously put it, funding is one of the lesser problems, since mentioning biotech is “a fantastic way to make people part with their money.”

One discrepancy with the biotech industry is that people often consider it the same as the pharmaceutical industry, when in fact the two are vastly different, but intricately connected. Biotech companies must be small and nimble and focused on innovation and discovery. Pharmaceutical companies are much larger and more focused on marketing and profit making, hence yield much more revenue. With the biotechnology industry moving at such a high speed, biotech tools become outdated quickly, and are not nearly as productive as pharmaceutical drugs. A principle topic of the convention is the microchip, which, since its development, has been used with great success. However, few companies who have invested in microchip development have endured. As a tool, the microchip needs constant updates, and companies using them want them customized, not just uniform, “off the shelf” products. Fletcher sees the future of the microchip directed towards developing protein chips. But problems such as proteins being much more complex than oligonucleotides (DNA fragments), and their rapid denaturalization, pose as obstacles to the development of a protein chip. Fletcher sees Asia as a potential breeding ground for biotechnology businesses, even with the late start. Asia hosts a wealth of researchers and funding, which has yielded to past as well as current success in the IT industry. Even better, much of the world’s eyes are now turning to traditional Chinese herbs for medicine. With Asia already well attuned to this practice, it may well prove to be an advantage. Nevertheless, there are still many significant gaps between Asian biotech and that of the U.S., such as lack of experience and resources. Fletcher had begun her speech by describing publisher Nature Publishing Group and Nature Biotechnology, a leading science journal published weekly around the world, for which she is a senior editor. Nature prints articles and issues pertinent to the biotechnology such as ethics, latest finding, editorials, and reviews. She concluded by telling the audience of the “bioentrepreneur” portal the Nature Publishing Group plans to put up. The site will offer much advice and resources people interested in biotechnology will find useful.