The four colours of biotechnologyy

The biotechnology sector is occasionally described as a rainbow, with each sub sector having its own colour. But what do the different colours of biotechnology have to offer the pharmaceutical industry?
Jan 01, 2009
Volume 21, Issue 1

Susan Aldridge
The UK Government has decided there might be money in biotechnology. As well as this, in a few weeks, the spotlight will be on what the world's most Northern scientific community can offer the biotech community with the 4th International BIOPROSP Conference on Marine Biotechnology (Norway). However, these developments have nothing to do with the human genome, monoclonal antibodies or biomarker-based diagnostics, as the biotech universe extends far beyond the biopharmaceutical advances — and setbacks — that hit the headlines.

The biotechnology sector is occasionally described as a rainbow (with some colours missing) with each subsector having its own colour: red biotech is the medical sector, white (sometimes known as grey) the industrial sector, green is plant and environmental biotechnology, and blue is marinebased biotech. The term 'black biotechnology' is sometimes used to describe activities related to bioterrorism.

All the sectors of biotechnology have something to offer the pharmaceutical industry. Big Pharma is using red biotech to fill its dwindling pipelines, which is all the more important as its 'patent cliff', a term analysts use to describe the unprecedented loss of patent protection drug makers face during the next few years, looms ever larger. According to a Datamonitor survey conducted in 2007, companies can expect to lose $140 billion (108 billion euro) in sales up to 2016 as their blockbusters face increasing generic, including biogeneric or biosimilar, competition. Therefore, pharmaceutical companies need biotech innovation from drugs hitting novel targets and pathways, such as RNA interference, therapeutic vaccines and even gene therapy. Hundreds of products similar to this are being developed in small biotech companies and academic departments worldwide. These SMEs need Big Pharma's cash and expertise to push their programmes towards the clinic, and so we can expect a steady stream of deals going forward into 2009.

The application of white biotech to pharma may seem a bit less obvious. EuropaBio (the trade organization for the European biotechnology industry) defines white biotech as the application of biotechnology for the processing and production of enzymes, chemicals, materials and bioenergy. Much of the new interest in white biotech comes from the global drive towards a lower carbon, more 'knowledgebased' economy — both to try to alleviate global warming and to go easier on the earth's finite resources. Until now, the chemical, plastics, pharma and healthcare industries have been overwhelmingly fossil fuel based, both in their power sources and their production processes. This cannot continue. A big focus in white biotech is to find efficient ways to manufacture biofuels to replace fossil fuels. The other goal is to replace conventional chemical processes, including those using metal catalysts, with lower energy, cleaner, enzymebased processes.

As mentioned previously, the UK government is taking an interest in white biotech. It has set up the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation and Growth Team, which is looking at the opportunities and challenges in this area. A policy document will be published later this year, setting out a strategy on white biotech.

The author says…
For the pharma industry, white biotech is well aligned with 'green chemistry' initiatives to make drug manufacturing processes leaner, cleaner, with less waste and toxics production. There is probably an enzyme for every chemical transformation you might want to do in assembling a drug molecule. The problem is obtaining that enzyme in the quantities needed for industrial processes. There are biotechnology companies, which include Biotec Pharmacon (Norway), Biocatalysts (UK) and Novozymes (Denmark), that specialize in doing just this — cloning a gene of interest, expressing the enzyme it codes for (and perhaps engineering it for better properties), scaling up production, and packaging and marketing it for the industry sector that can use it as a tool.

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