By doubling its size over the past decade, biotechnology becomes an increasingly important aspect of the world economy. From agricultural biotechnology, that improves both the quality and quantity of food production, to biotech contributions within the ever-expanding pharma sector – biotechnology serves as a powerful economic weapon and money generator in modern times.
The term biotechnology represents any technological manipulation of a living biological system (organism). Within the pharma industry, biotechnology is used as a collective for all disruptive technologies that serve as generators of a purportedly more efficient class of pharmaceuticals. Thus, biopharma is the product of the application of modern technology in pharmacology.
From a historical point of view, a potential (legitimate) start of the “biotechnological revolution” in science can be considered the end of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty (1980) — a U.S. Supreme Court case whose settlement led to a legal permission for genetically modified organisms to be patented. Ananda Chakrabarty (a genetic engineer at General Electric) developed a bacterium that can break down crude oil and as such can be used in treating oil spills. Chakrabarty’s initial attempt to patent his invention was unsuccessful as back at the time living creatures were not patentable. Sydney Diamond, Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, was the main opposition of Chakrabarty’s aspirations to patent his newly developed bacterium and he took the case to the Supreme Court. Finally, the invention in question was patented as the bacterium was found to hold unique characteristics that were not inherent to any other living creature and moreover, had the potential to be beneficial for the environment. This famous case is perceived to set the beginning of the Biotech industry that is currently characterized by scientific advances that people 50 years ago did not consider possible. However, as a matter of life, if an invention happens to be successful, to generate a lot of customer interest and profit, this same invention becomes subject to the greediness of the human nature as corruption and manipulation have somehow survived throughout the centuries.
Biotech Example: Modifying the Mouse
As the mouse and human genome are similar in size, mouse models are usually used to research human diseases. Nevertheless, current mouse models often fail to recapitulate basic human disease characteristics because of the differences in the way networks linking genes react to a particular disease in mice and humans.
Here comes the innovation power of biotechnology that promises to solve this problem by creating a humanized mouse model through the combination of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, i.e. by replacing the biological tissue of mice with human stem cells in order to create a humanized microenvironment inside the mouse model (whether such experiments are acceptable from an ethical point of view is not the subject of this article).
Fact or Speculation
From a financial perspective, mergers and acquisitions are common in the biotech industry. Any such decisions often aim at the establishment of economics of scale in R&D, as raising capital for the sake of scientific progress (and not only) can be an extremely challenging matter. Larger and well-established firms are usually the ones that take the lion’s share of the publicly available funding. The majority of the smaller-scale companies are not in a good market position, as they are mostly associated with high risk and therefore investors are not willing to support their projects. This is why most of the small-scale companies trade their shares below the actual IPO (Initial Public Offering). In the brightest possible scenario, early-stage companies with high-growth prospects can be financed by venture capitalists, but in such cases the general requirement is for the company to make at least $15 million in sales. And let us now imagine how many of the biotech companies actually match this criterion.
“The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst.”
In 2010, the Academy-Award winning documentary Inside Job disclosed how sometimes people from the world of academia cooperate with economists from leading banks to create market trends that might be so dangerous to lead to the 2008 financial crisis. If the world economy can be manipulated on such levels, then every business can be a potential (and actual) subject to corruption. Biotech may not make an exception, as sources (such as the New York Times) suggest about the relationship between big corporations and independent scientists who defend biotech companies and their particular inventions for the sake of personal gain. Furthermore, when it comes to biopharma, there is a major problem regarding a number of patent expirations. Big companies have developed blockbusters that bring them enormous profits and are unwilling to loosen their monopoly and admit other companies in the game. While obtaining a patent on its own can be extremely challenging and expensive for biopharma companies, this whole game of patent term extensions definitely harms the average customer who has to find a way to afford the monopolistic prices of life-saving medicines.
Did you know?
A molecule of aspirin consists of 21 atoms. A biopharmaceutical molecule might contain anything from 2,000 to 25,000 atoms. This, of course, incurs higher production costs, but the revenue prospects in biopharma and the fact that this field promises to cure fatal diseases make pharmaceutical companies add the bio- to their business strategy.
In a time when engineers in the Silicon Valley are trying to reach immortality through merging their minds with computers, biotechnologies come as a natural reflection of the technological revolution of our time in biology. One of its most powerful applications is in the pharmaceutical and medical sectors, but the branches of life science within which biotech gains power quickly increase in number.
Автор: Лиана Евтимова
Редактор: Виталия Елисеева, Мария Гребенщикова
Иллюстратор: Мария Маслова