July 29, 2004  (STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Vic L. Ilag, Ph.D.  -  One of the things that disappointed me during my visit in 2001, is that after being away from home for 16 years, the rate of progress in biotech in the Philippines has been very slow. In spite of the buzz about biotech in the Philippines, my personal impression is that its biotech industry is at least 15 years behind and the gap is widening further unless something gets done.

Misconceptions of biotech and academic purity. One of the most interesting and revealing conversations I had was during a meeting with several faculty members at UP Los Baños. I was surprised when I was told that the faculty is not allowed to set up companies based on their discoveries or they should quit their posts to pursue it. Apparently this has been a policy to maintain academic purity. To counter this mindset, it should be pointed out that academic excellence is not compromised. If one looks at the top universities in the US, the faculty members, including several Nobel laureates, are free to participate in setting up companies based on their discoveries. The number of biotech companies associated with a professor is an unofficial measure of stature. Walter Gilbert, 1980 Nobel Prize laureate for his work on DNA sequencing and Harvard University professor, is co-founder of top-tier biotech companies. Furthermore, Genentech, one of the premiere biotech companies, has a high publication rate when compared to other academic institutions.

Another argument for allowing faculty to set up companies based on their discoveries is that they have the expertise, and the technology is better transferred if the faculty is part of the company, and more importantly, they have the motivation and passion. Of course, a limit needs to be set so that the faculty member is not distracted from his or her major objective of teaching and scholarly work. In addition, this creates additional economic incentives for the faculty member and can discourage any temptations of academic corruption. Identifying and respecting each academician’s strengths may lead to better management of their time and effort. Those who prefer to mainly teach should be justly rewarded as well for taking on the teaching credits that generate their income. The academic environment should be mindful of and respect these multi-faceted roles the faculty takes. If innovation is the driver of the biotech industry and the source of talent and ideas is the university, it is common sense that we need to promote this activity within the university.

Lost opportunities. One famous missed opportunity is the toxin from the Conus snails stemming from the research of Baldomero Olivera of the University of Utah and Lourdes Cruz of UP MSI. One particular toxin, ziconitide, to be used as a painkiller, was being developed then by a company in the US called Neurex, which was eventually acquired by Elan Pharmaceuticals for a whopping $700 million. Of course, every misinformed opportunist took to the papers and streets crying exploitation by rich countries. However, we need to dig into the details and possibly consider that it was simply our fault. At that time the medical value of the toxin was not obvious until Neurex stumbled on its potential use. What is disconcerting is that in spite of this potential, the government has not yet invested today more research into this area of searching other Conus toxins. The reality is that we may have a lot of natural resources both in land and in sea, but these resources need to be developed. A better understanding of intellectual property law needs to be communicated to lawmakers, government officials and especially to militant and vocal non-government organizations. Nobody has claim on a living organism whether plant, animal, or microorganism. A patent only covers the isolated form of the material from these sources or a defined utility for an organism.

Recommendations in creating a biotech cluster: a brainstorm. Like any industry, the key is to establish an interactive community of suppliers and consumers directed on some sort of activity called a cluster. For biotech in particular, I see three key components that need to be addressed and developed – science and education, finance, and legal structures.

The government should not get too involved and try to even attempt to target research that needs to be commercialized. Let the markets decide which companies will be the winners.

The government should promote the industry by continuously supporting research at the university levels. Research should be done at the universities and specialized research institutes should be slowly phased out. The lifeblood of biotech is innovation and this is best achieved in university research labs and training of future scientists. Boosting salaries of the faculty and modifying policies that will make it easier for scientists to be entrepreneurs would accelerate the development of this industry.

Economic incentives should be promoted to attract foreign venture capital firms and to entice even local companies to shift into biotech as a way of diversifying their investments. Once the money comes in, companies are set up, jobs are created and the economic standard of living is increased. This effect should be directly felt by the academic community and then spread to the local communities. The government should recognize this multiplier effect and not worry about getting direct revenues from inventions.

One of the advantages of the Philippines is that there are a lot of Filipino scientists abroad, including respectable experts in their fields, who can pitch in and help out. The government can help recruit these people and seek their advice. They are patriotic and simply need to be organized to get them aboard.

One should realize that creating a biotech cluster is a major endeavor and will definitely take time, money, and a lot of patience. I would say this is a 10- to 30-year project. Although it is going to be a tough journey, I am optimistic because we have one of the greatest resources on earth… our people.

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Vic L. Ilag is chief technology officer of Xerion Pharmaceuticals AG, Munich, Germany. Prior to his current position in and co-founding of Xerion Pharmaceuticals AG, he was a group leader and member of the R&D Directorate at Morphosys AG, Munich, Germany. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue University with Professor Michael G. Rossmann, where he used structural methods to study virus assembly and disassembly processes. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee Medical School in Memphis for work on bacteriophage fX174 in 1991. He graduated from UP Los Baños with a BS Biology (Genetics) degree in 1985.

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