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The Future of the Biotech Industry

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Dr Patrick Dixon lecture to biotech venture capital investors about future medicine and health care, gene therapy, biotechnology, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Biotech is the use of the science of genetics: alteration of genetic code by artificial means, and is therefore different from traditional selective breeding. Biotech has attracted huge interest from venture capitalists and investment funds. Biotech companies remain high risk, subject to rumor mill stories about Biotech corporate successes and failures. The truth about the Biotech industry is that there have been many spectacular experiments but very few are commercially viable discoveries or inventions protected by Biotech patent, likely to produce a commercial return in the next decade. For this reason, expect Biotech venture capital to be harder to find before 2006, by which time, a series of new products will begin to really excite some investors again.

Biotech research examples include taking the gene for poison in the tail of a scorpion, and combining it with a cabbage - an experiment carried out in Oxford.  These GMO cabbages kill caterpillers because they have learned to grow scorpion poison (insecticide) in their sap. But who wants to eat these kinds of foods? Biotech has also given us crops resistant to weedkillers (maize for example) but Monsanto had huge image problems to overcome.

Biotech also includes adding human genes to sheep so that they secrete alpha-1 antitrypsin in their milk - useful in treating some cases of lung disease. Biotech promises huge advances in health care and cures for many diseases. Biotech produced bacteria with human genes for insulin back in 1983 - a great practical application which has saved many lives.

Biotech has created a chicken with four legs and no wings. The bizarre end of Biotech continues to attract media attention. Expect many more headlines about Biotech that will add to growing public unease about the abuse of science.

Biotech has created a goat with spider genes that creates "silk" in its milk. End result may be a new suture material for surgeons.

Biotech works because there is one language of life:  human genes work in bacteria, monkey genes work in mice and earthworms.  Tree genes work in bananas and frog genes work in rice.  There is no limit in theory to the potential of Biotech.

Biotech has given us the power to alter the very basis of life on earth.

Biotech has been said to be no different than ancient breeding methods but this is untrue.  For a start, breeding or cross-breeding, or in-breeding (for example to make pedigree dogs) all work by using the same species. In contrast Biotech allows us to combine fish, mouse, human and insect genes in the same person or animal.

Biotech therefore has very few limits - except perhaps our imagination, and our moral or ethical code.

Biotech makes the whole digital revolution look almost as nothing.  Digital technology changes what we do.  Biotech has the power to change who we are.

Human cloning is a type of Biotech, but is not the same as true genetic manipulation.  In human cloning, the aim is to duplicate the genes of an existing person so that an identical set is inside a human egg.  The result is intended to be a cloned twin, perhaps of a dead child.  Biotech in its fullest form would result in the child produced having unique genes - as a result of laboratory interference, and therefore the child will not be an identikit twin. Unfortunately, headlines about birth of human clones just add to the bad image of Biotech in general, confirming in many investor's minds the view that Biotech is a high risk sector best avoided, because a single headline can have a dramatic effect on public mood. 

Biotech could create crops that grow in desert, or without fertiliser.  Biotech could make bananas or other fruit which contain vaccines or other medical products.

Biotech will alter the basis of life on earth - permanently - unless controlled.  This could happen if - say - mutant viruses, or bacteria, or fish or reptiles are released into the general environment.

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