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Over The Horizon

Building Up Biotech

New Zealand is in an enviable position to tap into one of the world's five "megatrends", the fast-growing biotechnology industry, according to visiting US biotechnologist, Dr Andrew Russell.

He rates this country's significant intellectual capability and cleanliness, enhanced by geographical location, as the keys which are already unlocking doors to supply base materials used in biotechnology research world-wide.

Russell, from pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly's Research Laboratories, was in New Zealand recently to address the New Zealand Biotechnology Association conference.

He said the major pharmaceutical companies would develop and deliver new drugs to market, but they in turn would rely on small companies around the globe to support crucial research with the basic reagents used in discovery materials to make the initial breakthroughs.

"In the next 10-15 years we can expect profound advances in medicine and Eli Lilly has a significant investment and strategy to deliver more biotech products. At present we have four major biotech products in our portfolio, but our goal is to increase this to 50% of our products."

Russell rates biotechnology as the mechanism to provide a radical shift in how human disease is treated. It is anticipated that many new therapies will emerge with advances possible in a broad range of diseases including cancer, AIDS, cardiovascular disease and immune system disorders.

Biotechnology traces its origins back 45 years to the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick. From that came an explosion of understanding about the molecular structure of life forms, and the growth of technologies such as computer science, miniaturisation and advances in biochemistry now allows more precise reading of the genetic code.

"Biotechnology is the application of basic molecular biology and other technologies to understand, simplistically, how things actually work and what they comprise so we can, in turn, understand and improve living systems."

However, Russell says there are far more checks and balances in biotechnology than the public recognises. He says the industry takes a very cautious approach, especially to molecular biology, and people's perception of what science might do significantly exceeds the industry's actual capability.

New Zealand has been quick to see the economic potential in biotechnology, and the fledgling industry already accounts for over $100 million in exports each year.