Press Release
July 12, 2010

2010 Novartis Biotechnology Leadership Camp (BioCamp)
12 July 2010, Asian Institute of Management
Senator Edgardo J. Angara
Keynote speaker

In the coming decades, James Canton, a world-renowned futurist, foresees that biotechnology, ICT, nanotechnology, and neurotechnology will be the areas of radical innovation and source of a huge chunk of the global wealth in the next five, ten, and twenty years.

Among these top trends that will reshape the world in the coming years, biotechnology and ICT have the greatest potential for improving people's quality of lives in developing countries.

That is why I am happy to be here to talk about how biotechnology research can play a crucial role in our country's development and how it can improve the lives of Filipinos.

There are three areas in which biotechnology can help solve our most pressing and immediate problems: increasing food production, prolonging our lives and improving its quality, and rescuing our ailing natural environment.

First, food production. We are constantly in search of ways to cope with the growing demand for and rising cost of food.

A report by the Asian Development Bank calculated that with every 10 per cent increase in food prices, 2.72 million Filipinos will become poor. Given the constant increase in food prices every year, it is very likely that the number of poor has already risen to more than 30 million or a third of our population.

Now more than ever, we realize that growth in agricultural productivity is key to fighting hunger and poverty. Unfortunately, our country's agriculture sector has not been able to feed our people adequately and inexpensively, compared with our Asian neighbors.

The current food situation, both local and global, calls for a concerted, multi-faceted, sustained, and sustainable approach to providing solutions, very important of which is biotechnology research. We need more strategic and highly beneficial research efforts in order to improve productivity, increase farmers' incomes, achieve self-sufficiency, and attain food security.

Biotechnology provides farmers the opportunity for improved plant growth and higher yield through biofertilizers and biocontrol agents.

There is tremendous potential in improved crops containing genes that have tolerance to pests, disease, and drought. These improved plants reduce considerably production costs such as inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.

Marker technologies, meanwhile, may help speed up the selection and production of more effective hybrids. Most breeding work in the country is now using this technology, specifically in rice, corn, banana, and coconut.

In the livestock sector, we can benefit tremendously from the production of vaccines for foot and mouth disease and hemorrhagic septicemia, for diagnostics, and in vitro fertilization.

Secondly, health. Biotechnology's application on health include researches in drugs and medicines, genetic testing, gene therapy, vaccine development, diagnostics and cloning.

Biotechnology will enable us to better diagnose diseases, promote the use of gene therapy, stem cell therapy and xenotransplantation[1] to prolong human life.

The biotechnology sector is estimated to amount for more than a third of the world's GDP. Medical and health applications of biotechnology are the largest sector worldwide, making up 12 - 14% of the GDP in key markets.

In Asia, the top four (4) countries doing biotechnology research include Japan, India, China and Singapore.

  • Japan's pharmaceutical market has surpassed the whole of Europe as the 2nd largest worldwide.

  • China has shown potential in embryonic research, while India will shift its pharmaceutical capabilities from production of generic medicine to drug discovery.

  • Singapore, on the other hand, is the most successful of all countries in the region.

  • Other countries like Malaysia, Taiwan and Korea have opened attractive investment conditions for companies to do research.

The Philippines is one of the world's most biologically rich countries. It ranks 3rd as a biodiversity hotspot and 1st in marine biodiversity. Of all 500 coral species studied, 488 can be found in Philippine marine waters.

The Philippines has plenty of resources for the manufacture of natural products, nutraceuticals (or food with medicinal benefits), and potentially therapeutic natural compounds.

Third, the environment. Biotechnology can resuscitate our contaminated environment by eliminating pollutants and wastes from our industrial and household activities. Introducing biological agents can remove contaminants from our rivers, creeks and canals. We can adopt an approach that goes into the very level of genes and chromosomes of organisms in order to reduce our carbon footprint.

Biotechnology is also used in engineering organisms to adapt to different environmental stresses caused by natural and human activities.

Marine flora and fauna can be one of the major beneficiaries of biotechnology since they are the ones plagued by oil spills, petroleum seepages and other forms of pollution.

A considerable amount of petroleum is eliminated by the newly discovered hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria (HCCB), a naturally occurring bacteria. Plenty more types of beneficial bacteria are waiting to be harnessed and studied in biotech laboratories. Our efforts should be geared towards the development of these discoveries in combating the degradation of our environment.

Overcoming challenges

We've heard what biotechnology is capable of doing. There are, however, a host of challenges preventing us from fully realizing the potential of biotechnology in the country.

Difficulty in accessing new technologies. The development of the local biotechnology industry has been hampered by the inability of researchers to access state-of-the-art technologies, including laboratories, hardware and equipment, as well as new knowledge and processes. Researchers are therefore repeating work done elsewhere rather than adopting current technologies.

Technology transfer. Another major bottleneck in Philippine biotechnology is the transfer of technologies between the academe and industry. Products of research will not create any measurable impact unless they are transferred to end-users and/or commercialized. The challenge is to transfer products to users, particularly to small farmers and fishermen. This also requires the proper packaging of the product to attract private investors for eventual commercialization.

The importance of networks. Experiences of developed countries have shown that acceleration of innovation takes place when functional linkages are established between disciplines, universities, and industry.

A great example of inter-institutional linkage is the collaboration between Harvard, MIT, and the Whitehead Institute for Medical Research. This was set up in 2004 by the Broad Institute whose mission is to fulfill the promise of the Human Genome Project for new advances in medicine.

Under this set up, the Broad Institute gathered a team of scientists, physicians, and engineers who work together in molecular biology, genomics, chemistry, engineering, computational science, and medicine. And in its first two years, they are already providing new insights into diseases and their cures.

This is a model for what institutional collaborations can achieve.

The role of the academe. Finally, there is a glaring need for us to boost the capabilities of our colleges and universities to provide a strong foundation that can address the lack of scientists and a strong research base in biotechnology.

By creating a system that produces scientists that can specialize in biotechnology, our educational system can help stimulate the growth of this field. We need to identify where to introduce biotechnology into the curriculum to promote the increase of biotechnologists.

But, by far, the biggest lack is government support. Our Science and Technology department spent 250 million for biotechnology projects, including R&D on low-cost medicine from marine organisms. But we know that this is not enough. We need private sector investment, which is at best lackluster at this time.

How to foster Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) is our chief challenge, creating the necessary incentives and environment for such a partnership. PPPs will tie the academe closely with industry, thus identifying the specific skills that products from our educational system will need once they enter the workforce.


[1] Xenotransplantation is an process which improves the chances of acceptance of an animal organ to human transplant

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