Report from Brazil

Brazil's major vaccine producer innovates with stem-cell research.
Mar 02, 2013

In 1898, an outbreak of Bubonic plague struck the port of Santos in São Paulo, Brazil. A year later, a local bacteriological institute set up a unit to produce anti-plague serum in a government-owned farm known as Butantan, which was renamed the Butantan Serumtherapy Institute in 1901.

The institute started gaining global recognition as it ventured into research on animal venom, which consequently led to the production of anti-venom. In 1915, the institute was renamed Butantan Institute. Known as Butantan, the institute currently conducts technical and scientific activities in two major areas—the production of serum and biomedical research.

The institute claims to be Latin America's biggest vaccine producer, with an output of more than 300 million doses every year. Today, Butantan is considered a major contributor to Brazil's public health, having approximately 1700 staff members, including 180 scientific researchers specializing in innovation.

Innovation using Brazilian technology

"I believe Butantan Institute is an important partner to [Brazil's pharma] companies as 80% of all vaccines used in Brazil are produced by this institute," says Irina Kerkis, director of the genetics laboratory at Butantan Institute. Despite its struggles in a globally competitive market, the institute reaches for innovation while balancing research and production according to its researchers.

In its search for local and global recognition, Butantan has developed major research capabilities at its genetics laboratory, including the expertise to retrieve stem cells from milk teeth. Nelson Foresto Lizier, a scientific researcher working at Butantan's genetics laboratory, says that this project is vital given that stem cells have the ability to generate almost any human cell. The study, which is considered the first of its kind in Brazil, is being developed with "100% Brazilian technology" according to Lizier.

The development of the technology started in 2004. It was initially privately funded; however, six years later, investment from major public agencies began pouring in according to Kerkis.