Saturday, August 30, 2008

Story of the Egg: Human Capital of Biotechnology and its challenges (Part 3)

Industries are the bread and butter of science. In a pragmatic sense, what use is there for frontline, hard-edged research if there is no one to translate it into products and methods which are relevant to society? Where would the wheel be, without having it being turned into carts and cars? What use would it be for researchers to discover the perfect anti-cancer compound when it could not be available to the public? In the same line of thought, where would biotech students be, if they are not taught the skills and techniques by which they can be made relvant to the industries?

One of the reasons why I disagree with Maha on a 4-year course would be due to the fact that nothing in academia can be a substitute for the rigours of being in the industry. That is why I feel compelled to stress to students the need to take up industrial training. In my undergrad course, industrial training/interships are not compulsory, and most students feel compelled to take the summer semester as a chance to laze around at home and relax for 3 months before attending another rigorous round of academic exercise. All of this is well, except for the fact that they are probably losing out on the most important experience in their academic life, where they are still excused as students to learn the industry at a less demanding pace, but yet being able to feel the pulse of the industry and get to know further what they will be experiencing out of the ivory tower.

However, that being said, I do have to express great dissatisfaction as well to industry players who treat interns as a form of cheap labour or even hinderance. All is well if they get the chance to learn, however, some corporations guard their secrets so jealously, or are so under-equipped to support interns that students end up taking up the role of office boys and girls and do few, if any biotech related tasks. Their role here is to learn as much as they can so they can be equipped to meet the challenges of work-life. If you as the industry are not nuturing them, then whose role is it to nuture them considering that few academic courses would be able to provide even the slightest glimpse of the real conditions. Then who is to blame if we have grads who don't even understand the simple functions of the commercial line?

Here, I must laud some industry players I have met in my interviews who have be not only strongly supportive of student interns, but also are so willing to impart their skills that they end up employing them as well. My point of view is that industry players should not be shy in teaching, as they probably would end up saving on putting out employment ads on the newspaper in the end. ;) But in all due seriousness, even if they don't end up working in this field, think of it as a golden opportunity to nuture the minds of the next generation who will build up our nation's biotech industry to greater heights.

As a conclusion for my lengthy post, I shall try to summarise several key points. Firstly, student attitudes are paramount. If they are not even receptive to learn, then there is no use for discussion in the first place, and we shall see more biotech grads who don't even understand the basics of biotech. Secondly, the academic institutions should look into instilling more industry-related courses or units, as it is their responsibility for them to educate grads in the various aspects of biotech they would be facing when they exit the ivory towers. On a similar note, industries should be receptive of grads as interns and be willing to impart knowledge. I cannot stress further the importance of industrial training, and hope institutions would look into making it a compulsory measure.

With that, I pray we shall not see a repeat of fresh grads being stumped by the definition of GM.
- by K. C. Liew

Monday, August 25, 2008

The New Organic

Sorry for not updating the blog for a few days. We were extremely busy with two big events last week. Here is our new article...

The year 1996 marked a new era in agriculture. An important change swept over farms in many countries around the world with a new farming technique being adopted. The new technique allowed farmers to spray far less insecticides over their farms. In China, for example, when this technique was adopted in the beginning of 1997, cotton farmers reduced their annual use of poisonous chemicals by 156 million pounds. This is almost as much chemicals used in the entire state of California each year. Besides this benefit, there was increase in cotton yield and reduced production costs. Other positive environmental and socioeconomic impacts were also recorded – increase in the number of beneficial insects in the farm and fewer workers and family health problems from exposure to chemical pesticides.

This success story has been repeated around the world reflecting the aspirations of organic-farming advocates. But the winner in this case is not organic farming but genetic engineering or genetic modification (GM) technology. The first generation of GM crops was engineered to protect itself against insects. The plants carried a protein from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This protein kills pests but is safe to mammals, birds, fish, and human and has been a favourite among organic farmers.

Growing population, shortage of food, increase in food price, climate change, and the need to conserve the remaining pristine wilderness are enourmous challenges that we face today. And the agriculture sector has been the biggest culprit to the eroding condition of the environment with drastic expansion of acres under cultivation, emission of green house gasses through the use of chemicals, fuel, and tilling exercise. Permanent savings in carbon dioxide emissions through reduced use of fossil-based fuels, associated with fewer insecticide and herbicide sprays was estimated to be 962 million kg in 2005. This is equivalent to reducing the number of cars on the roads by 0.43 million. Along with the reduction in the use of chemicals, come other benefits to the consumers. Our food is less tainted with chemical residues and free of fungal toxins such as aflatoxin. Aflatoxin, produced by fungi is a known cancer-causing agent and is highly toxic to human and animals and is a big problem to the feed industry. Fungi infestation occurs when crops, for example corn is attacked by insects causing injuries which become entry points to these fungus.

The organic sustainable farming methods are labour and energy intensive and they require far more land to produce the same yield. By 2050, the number of people on earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion and organic farms are unable to feed the increasing population neither are they sustainable. With only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is currently being farmed organically and less than 1 percent in America, organic produce is far from market demand. Organic food also fetches higher price than its counterparts and therefore, is not affordable to everyone. In contrast, GM technology produces far higher yield and cheaper produce. The benefits of GM technology is evident with an increase of 12% in acreage in the last five years, with 114.3 million hectares planted with GM crops globally. GM crops represent 50 to 90 per cent of total crop acreage in countries where they are cultivated.

Today 70 percent of all processed foods in the United States have at least one ingredient from genetically engineered corn, cotton, canola, or soybean. Unlike the well-documented adverse effects of some pesticides, there has not been a single case of illness associated with these crops. Every year there are a few fatal cases reported in the US and Europe due to consumption of unhygienic organic vegetables, but none on GM foods. A report by the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that the process of adding genes to our food by genetic engineering is no riskier than mixing genes by conventional plant breeding. In Malaysia, we have been consuming GM soybeans and its derivates for more than a decade and no health hazards has been reported. Since all our feed for our livestock industry is imported and the bulk of it is made of corn and soybean, it is highly likely that they are GM, and that too has not posed any health problem to us. The reality is without GM feed, our livestock industry will collapse.

The remarkable success of GM crops should not be overlooked but should be considered as one of the alternatives to the current agricultural practice. It is undeniable that GM crops will play an increasingly important role in agriculture in spite of all the negative propaganda against this technology.

-by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Have Biodiversity Will Flourish...?

I promised an article on my thoughts on our herbal industry and research. Here it is.

Every conferences and seminars I attend, I am repeatedly reminded of our rich biodiversity, that Malaysia is one of the 12 megabiodiverse countries, and that we are richer than the US, Canada and Europe put together in terms of biodiversity. Of course, I can’t agree more. But owning something and the ability to put it to good use, knowing exactly what we own (the intrinsic of it), and fully understanding its potential are completely different things.

My frequently asked questions in my talks are:
1. Do we know what is in our forest?
2. Have we taken audit of all our plants, microbes, mushrooms, and the abundant marine organisms, as well as soil samples?
3. How much of bioprospecting do we carry out?
4. Are we capable of safeguarding our biodiversity with our regulations?
5. How much of perseverance do we have in taking our research beyond simple screening?
6. How much do we collaborate with companies in synthesising compounds, doing clinical research, etc?

I leave you to answer these questions. I for one, am always reluctant to try any herbal concoction for simple reasons that it is not fully tested, not much research has gone into producing it, and not highly regulated. I don’t mind taking a drug, because its side effects are clearly known. A known devil is always better than an unknown angel! Nature is not always safe. Different concoction, different dosages, and different combination of herbs can give entirely different results. Sometimes, it can even be detrimental to one’s health. Traditional knowledge should be used as guidance but if we want to add value and be able to penetrate global market, then research is the way to go. Research will enhance the knowledge of our forefathers and bring the products to greater heights.

Local herbal companies should go beyond just adding herbal concoction to tea and coffee, and into gelatine capsules. This is what our grandparents did. We should move on to be able to capture the global market.

Talk about herbs, and we can’t skip our infamous Tongkat Ali. Where is it compared to Ginseng? And is it only good for vitality and as an aphrodisiac? How about its anti-malarial and anti-cancer properties? How far research in this area has gone?

We are sitting on a treasure trove. Just imagine what the industrial countries would have done if they had what we have. In fact, all big biotech players are not even rich in biodiversity.

Perhaps, being a country rich in biodiversity, we should have a separate institute that carries out all research related to our biodiversity – from conservation, bioprospecting, screening, clinical trials, synthesising and the whole works.

I attended a product launch of a health supplement from bitter guard. Extensive research has been carried out in India and they are still conducting more research in order for the product to achieve a drug status with FDA. When will we be there?

We recently organized a seminar with Sarawak Biodiversity Centre and had good deliberations on herbal research, commercialization, and the notion that biotech is a threat to biodiversity. It was a good seminar.

I can never forget a comment given by an environmental activist during another seminar. He said he always wondered why the government emphasises so much on biotechnology, when it just should be biodiversity. He said we don’t need biotechnology. All we should do is take care of our biodiversity. I must say I was shocked with this comment. It is mind boggling how biodiversity can translate into food, feed, fuel, fiber, drugs, and other compounds without technology. Biotechnology in fact, offers tools that enable us to utilise biodiversity in a sustainable manner. We don’t have to chop or uproot our plants to produce drugs. Tissue culture, chemical synthesis, and GM technology enables us to produce drugs and other compounds in a healthier, more efficient and sustainable manner. Biotechnology also offers tools for conservation.

Back to our herbal industry and research, I am waiting to switch from the mainstream medicines to herbal medicines and hope one day I will be convinced with its safety, amount of research and regulations.
- Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, August 8, 2008

Story of the Egg: Human Capital of Biotechnology and its challenges (Part 2)

Since the "grand" push for biotech, courses in biotechnology have been popping up in various universities, with most offering 3 year courses on various general aspects of science and relating that to the industry, like microbiology, biochemistry, bioinformatics etc., and later following up with industrial training in various institutions and companies across the country, like MARDI, FRIM, Sime Darby etc.

My own training involved work at FRIM's seed lab, where I was taught various techniques which may have not been sufficiently covered in university including tissue culture. The experience was eye-opening for me, as all previously-learnt techniques were brought to life. However, I must admit, 3 months of indutry experience was less than sufficient, in my opinions, as I was only attached to one lab, and had no other chances of looking at how the other industries work. Moreover, I had classmates who ended up in some companies and were mainly treated like office boys/girls instead of being given a good view of what working in the industry is like.

On whether the schools are providing sufficient training to their students, in terms of coursework and length of study, Maha and I have a slight disagreement. She prefers a four year course, where students are exposed to more research with hands-on-experience and even have time to take a few elective subjects on business and marketing. Whereas I believe that exposure should begin at the industry level, as there is only so much the schools can teach us. Hopefully, we'll be able to hear her argument soon, but I shall present my thoughts on this.

In school, students are split into groups during laboratory session which ends up with most of them not actually being able to have hands-on experience in the end. Similarly, experiments are designed according to coursework, which are mainly in the line of pure sciences, very few if any industry-related techniques are being introduced. Hence, I believe that training begins on day one when we start getting in touch with the industry.

I am lucky, for being able to have sufficient exposure, be it with industry personalities and industry players, while being similarly blessed with opportunities for training at institutions. However, not all of my classmates are so lucky. Few even knew who are the bigger players in the local biotech scene, nor do they know what is going on outside the walls of our ivory towers. Whose fault is it then? The school, for not providing sufficient exposure? Student apathy, for being brought up in a grade-centric environment? Industry, for being less than accessible?

I shall end this week's installment with one anecdote. When I first started with MABIC, I remember it being located in a fairly central corner of Monash University, as it is just next to the concierge, opposite the finance department, with a big sign in front saying "Biotechnology Resource Center". In fact, many students used to hang out just at its doorstep, as tables and chairs were set up by the school for them to study there. However, I have to shamefully admit, I had not hear of MABIC, neither had I even ventured a step into the "resource center" until I began my stint. Similarly, for my first few years at MABIC, few if any of my classmates had even heard of MABIC, and even mistook us for BiotechCorp which was formed slightly later. So the resource is there, but how many of us would take the first step in utilizing it? If the chick in the egg did not even attempt to crack the shell with its egg tooth, will it hatch into a beautifully plumed Ayam Serama?
- K.C. Liew

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Zero risk... Anyone?

I have a passion for driving especially on long distance routes. My first preference would always be to drive (within the peninsular) than to fly but unfortunately my mother hates the idea of me driving long distance. According to her it is dangerous to drive long distance but surprisingly she is fine with me riding bike to work every day (25km one way). I have attempted many times to explain to her that her risk perception is different than mine, but she keeps insisting that driving long distance is riskier and I should avoid it if possible. Clearly my risk perception is different than my mothers.

Different group of people often perceive risk differently depending on their depth of understanding in a certain technology. For example, physic experts may view nuclear technology as generally safe compared to public who considers the technology as dangerous. Significant portion of the public also believes that everything that is natural and from nature is safe but they fail to understand that most known toxic to men are from natural ingredients available freely from nature.

Despite the high number of road accidents and casualties, we don’t give up driving because we see more benefits than risks. Besides that we understand that car makers are consistently trying to make cars safer by introducing various safety features such as EBD, ABS, and airbag among others. This step is vital to mitigate or reduce risk and to increase acceptance among public that driving is made safer with these new technologies.

Well, how is this related to biotechnology? As we all know, biotechnology is a collection of various tools to modify and improvise living things for a better world. One of the products of this technology is GM Food (Genetically Modified Food). General public often feel that something that has been modified from nature is most often bad and dangerous, but they have failed to understand that GM food are made to be safer (through stringent biosafety regulations) than even conventional food that we have been consuming since time immemorial. One may say that this technology has not been tested enough, but haven’t we been eating GM soya for the past twelve years. There has not been a single report on GM food toxicity since GM products went on shelf more than a decade ago but yet some are worried that GM food is harmful. Lay person perceive that GM food are riskier than conventional food due to lack of understanding on the technology. Well, I wouldn’t drive a car if I am not aware of the safety features available in it. Imagine driving a car without brakes!!!.

The same goes for GM technology, the public should have an open mind on this issue; enrich their knowledge on the technology, its benefits, risks, and the safety measures taken before jumping into conclusions. What is more important is to make decisions based on accurate, science-based evidence and not merely on sentiments and beliefs. The benefits of this technology to Malaysia may differ from those to Europe and our priorities and national policies too may differ from some African countries.

On a hypothetical scenario, if petrol prices were to go below RM1.00 per liter, I will definitely start driving to work and not ride my bike. This is where we put our risk-benefit analysis to work. For a rich country that can afford to feed their people, GM food may not be necessary, they can even fully sustain on organic food but GM food may be the only answer for poor and developing countries to feed their growing population. The consequences of not adopting certain technology can pose a risk on its own. There's no such thing as zero risk. Risk-benefit analysis is a must for all technology and clearly GM technology shows more benefits than risks and is definitely going to be one of the drivers in the move towards a cleaner and a healthier world.

Acceptance of a technology is most often based on the understanding of the technology. As per my motto, “A tool that is least understood is often feared: The Unknown is not to be Feared, but to be Understood
- Joel William