Tuesday, September 30, 2008

BioMalaysia 2008


Conference & Exhibition
7 – 9 October 2008
Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre

BioMalaysia, Malaysia’s premier global biotechnology conference and exhibition is just around the corner. This significant event is jointly organized by Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) and Malaysia Biotechnology Corporation (BiotechCorp) with the support from Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) and Malaysian Bio-Industry Organisation (MBIO).

The theme for BioMalaysia 2008 is “Strengthening Value Creation in Biotechnology”. Value creation in biotechnology underscores the escalation of science to market – including opportunities in discovery, new technology, funding, entrepreneurship and in building the biotechnology business.

BioMalaysia 2008 will feature more than 60 presentations in 3 tracks by local and foreign biotechnology experts presenting Malaysian and International perspective on significant biotechnology and life science issues including:-

- Handling World Food Crisis
- BioNexus Status
- Market Driven Research for Biotechnology
- Structural Biotechnology in Drug Development
- Getting Natural Products to Commercialization
- Global Partnership
- Challenges for Developing Countries in Marketing Biotech

This event will also serve as a platform for all Malaysian Life Science researchers to meet and network as well as to forge closer research collaboration and to exchange knowledge. At the exhibition, more that 170 local and international booth will showcase latest biotechnology product discoveries and innovations. We, MABIC bloggers will be attending the conference as well as the exhibition and you can meet us for a chat, maybe over coffee. See you all at BioMalaysia 2008 and we wish all Muslims, “Selamat Hari Raya”.

For BioMalaysia 2008 Conference registration, please visit :- http://www.biomalaysia.com.my/

Friday, September 26, 2008

Mandatory vs Voluntary Labelling of GM products

Next time you buy your groceries, please check for items that contain derivatives from three major GM crops – soy, corn and canola. They come in the form of lecithin, emulsifiers, hydrolysed oil, starch, cooking oil, syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, fructose, corn meal, flavourings, food additives, and sweeteners among others. Now this is a long list that forms the ingredients of thousands of food lined up on the grocery shelves which include salad dressings, confections, breads, cakes and cookies, ice-creams, and soy sauce to name a few. We have not mentioned the enzymes used in the production of cheeses and vitamins. How about honey that comes from GM plants? You can’t simply regulate and monitor the transboundary movement of bees. Mandatory labelling will require all these products to be labelled, based on a set threshold level. The threshold level for Japan is 5%, whereas in EU is 1%. This means, any products with a GM ingredient exceeding the set threshold level will have to be labelled.

Now, let us take a product that contains five GM ingredients that exceeds the set threshold level. The five ingredients have to be tracked along the supply chain at every point from the farms to mills, elevators, processing and manufacturing of the products, and ports. Not to mention all the different hands the ingredients pass through such as suppliers, traders, etc. To ensure the ingredients do not get missed up with GM products, tests must be conducted at several points. These tests are not cheap, and depending on the threshold level, the test has to be accurate using highly sensitive equipments and methods. This is a very tedious process and requires lots of testing and segregation. Farmers and manufacturers will only comply with this if consumers are willing to bear the cost by paying a premium price for non-GM ingredients. Malaysia being a small market, big producers such as the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina might not see us as a potential market. More so, when these countries are trying hard to meet local demand in the wake of the global food crisis. Many countries are stocking up their food supply and have reduced exports.

As I always mentioned, GM technology has stood the test of time. More than 10 years have passed with no detrimental effect to human and animal safety, and the environment. It is also the most tested product in human history. Most pharmaceutical drugs are from GM technology. Have you ever wondered why these drugs are not scrutinized as much as GM food?

One of the main reasons for proposing mandatory labelling is to provide choices to consumers. Voluntary labelling can certainly address this. We even see that the reason for labelling as gone beyond safety issues. Religious reasons are also cited now. Isn’t the ‘halal’ labelling system sufficient? How would our Muslim friends determine the 'halal'ness of a product if they are informed of the teachnology used? The source of the ingredient is important to ascertain the 'halal' status and the current 'halal' regime adresses this. Then, we hear about Hindus who can’t consume beef products. So, I assume the appropriate agencies will also ensure that all products that contains beef ingredients will be labelled in the future to ease the dilemma faced by the Hindus, regardless it is GM or not, if the intention is genuine.

A strict labelling regime will be at the expense of taxpayers and consumers. It would require training of regulators, enforcement officers, lab technicians and technologists. Have are we going to regulate, enforce and monitor the traders in Malaysia, given most of our traders are SMEs? Will products sold in the night market or ‘pasar malam’ be labelled? Imagine your soybean drinks, ‘toufu fah’, and ‘tempe’ being labelled. It would be double-standard to exempt the ‘pasar malam’ traders because if safety is the valid concern, then all consumers should be protected and given the choice, not just those who go to big hypermarts.

I would be happy if resources, both financial and manpower is used for more worthy purposes such as ensuring restaurants follow strict hygiene guidelines, food manufacturers do not use banned ingredients, schools do not sell junk food, junk food peddlers are not allowed outside school compounds, smokers do not smoke in non-smoking areas, kids do not have access to cigarettes, the public do not use rivers as their garbage bins... my wish list can go on!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be...

Ask a class of primary school students, what they want to be when they grow up and you will have more than half the class say “doctor”. Ask a class of students in the science stream in secondary school and most likely all will say “doctor”.

I still remember one particular year when there was a big hue and cry when many top students did not get a place in the local university to pursue medicine. The Prime Minister himself had to intervene and allocate places for them at various public and private universities. I wished a different approach was taken.

I always wondered the reasons for students to be so interested to become doctors. I wouldn’t mind if they are sincerely and genuinely interested to help the sick and poor. But I am not convinced. Many just want to take up medicine because of the title and it sounds glamorous. I have met students who are not interested in Biology who aspires to be doctors. I have met parents with young kids who want their children to become doctors. These parents don’t even have the patience to wait and see the inclination of their children. For all we know, the child might be so artistic that he or she wants to be an interior designer! I also know an average student who went overseas to do medicine and took almost 10 years to complete his study. I heard he is now practicing in Johor. The next time I go to Johor and fall ill, I will be careful not to end up in his clinic...

The point I want to make here is - students should be exposed to all the options that are available, career prospects and what the job entails. Most of all, parents and teachers should be aware of the child’s interest, potential and inclination. There is no point forcing someone who is weak in science and math to take up medicine. I get calls from school leavers on what is the best field for them. It just amuses me to see that only after almost 12 years at school, these students are thinking and worrying about their career path. They should have at least some idea on what would interest them, what is the job they would enjoy doing, what is their strengths and weaknesses. Parents should play a big role here. The school too should expose the students and provide career guides to them. This can be done by inviting professionals from various disciplines to give talks describing their jobs, the challenges, the requirements etc.

The other point I would like to make here is – how would Malaysia attain the developed status if all our best students only want to be doctors? Don’t we need scientists, pharmacists, laboratory technologists, engineers in various fields, food technologists, nutritionists, etc? This list is simply never ending. We aspire to have a Nobel Laureate, but there seems to be no incentives for being scientists. We lack human capital, especially knowledge workers in the area of biotechnology. How many plant breeders do we have in Malaysia? Out of this how many are rice breeders? How about analytical chemists? Molecular biologists? These are the real endangered species in Malaysia. We need more of them. Human capital is the main asset for any industry. This area needs immediate rejuvenation. Students in the science stream should be encouraged to take up various other courses besides medicine.

I always stress that biotechnology is not a stand-alone field. It is a culmination of various fields and for commercialization to take place it requires the efforts from various experts. It is akin to a complicated surgery, e.g. detaching a conjoined twins, that requires not only a paediatric surgeon but an anaesthetist, neurologist, trained nurses, and technicians. I am sure there are others who are involved as well. The same goes for any biotech research. For a GM crop to be developed, it requires molecular biologists, tissue culturist, breeders, soil scientists, plant pathologists, entomologists, ecologists, botanists, etc. The same goes to develop a drug – virologists, bacteriologists, microbiologists, mycologists, pathologists, physicians, pharmacists, toxicologists, experts in clinical trials, and a whole lot of other experts are involved. The biotech sector not only requires scientists trained in life sciences but also engineers, bioinformatics, IT, and chemistry. And not only scientists are required but also highly skilled lab technologists.

This need must be realised. How many of our science students in schools are aware of the whole gamut of disciplines in life sciences? What have the relevant authorities done to expose and counsel them on all the available options? Who is responsible – the students themselves, teachers, parents, or ministries?
The other question that often plays in my mind is - what is the ratio of scientists to population in Malaysia? How do we compare to developed countries and what are the measures taken to increase this? I am also often perplexed with the high number of ministries in this country compared to even the US. Can't we make the system more lean and efficient and plough that money elsewhere where it is more productive? Anyone with statisctics, please tell me the ratio of administrative civil servants to population in Malaysia. I don't mind the teachers, doctors, engineers, and scientists - but can't the country do with fewer civil servants at the administrative level?
-by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

BioInformatics for Malaysia

Bio-informatics isn’t just another tool used in biotechnology research activities. It is deemed as the most important tool that is rapidly transforming the huge genomic data into useful information ranging from health care biotechnology to agriculture biotechnology. Without these tools, the abundant genomic data available becomes meaningless. Being such an important tool, it comes with no surprise that it is also the fastest evolving science in the field of biotechnology. Bioinformatics is a very complex field of study as it involves not only biology but also a strong discipline in computer science, statistics and mathematics.

The advances in this technology have initiated many start-up companies worldwide to tap into the huge amount of genomic data to create knowledge while useful applications are developed for better health and environment. One of such is the private company called 23andme providing Personal Genome Services which allows individuals to gain deeper insights into their ancestry and inherited traits. This enables individuals to discover genes that contribute to their personal characteristics. This is just one of the many companies that have benefited using bioinformatics as their platform to create successful business.

Looking at the potential contribution of this technology to the development of biotechnology in Malaysia, we have to assess our own strength, weaknesses and opportunities to enable the growth of biotechnology using bioinformatics. Just like any other discipline or field of study, availability of human capital is a must. But unfortunately developing human capital for bioinformatics is not an easy task. It’s simply because of the complexity of the subject matter that requires extensive understanding of biology as well as computational skills. What would be the best approach in becoming a bioinformatician? Should a biologist acquire computational skills or computer scientists take up biotechnology? There is no clear cut answer to this scenario but generally it appears that it’s much easier for a biotechnologist with strong analytical skills to acquire computational skills than the other way around. We do have institutes of higher learning offering bioinformatics at undergraduate and post-graduate levels but this alone is not sufficient. It’s about time we need a fully functional, dedicated and centralized Bioinformatics Institute. The closest we have is Malaysian Genome Institute (MGI) or known as GENOMalaysia which comes under MOSTI but unfortunately not many industry players are aware of the existence of the institute or the services offered by them. Besides collaborating with research institutes, MGI should open up their services extensively to private sectors in which local and foreign companies can use their services to further enhance their processes or products.

In the private sector, we can be proud of local companies providing world class bioinformatics solutions. In collaboration with Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation, Malaysian Genomics Resource Centre (MGRC) is providing ultra fast sequence analysis tools to research communities around the globe. By using a novel database platform from her parent company Synamatix, MGRC is able to provide researchers with search results in milliseconds and minutes as opposed to hours or days compared to applications built on conventional database platforms. Another homegrown bioinformatics company is Infovalley providing not only bioinformatics solutions but also medical and forensic tools to customers around the world. The existence of these world class bioinformatics players is clearly an indicator that we are in the right direction in becoming a global bioinformatics hub.

Bioinformatics is a catalyst for the growth of biotechnology and has to evolve in tandem with the latest advances in all research sectors of biotechnology. With the right exposure to the young minds, we have the capacity to nurture local bioinformatics experts to fuel the increasing demand for bioinformaticions in all biotechnology research institutes in Malaysia as well as in the region. We have all the right ingredients to transform Malaysia into a global bioinformatics hub; all we need now is concerted effort from the government and the private sector to realize this dream.

-by Joel William
(image by University of North Carolina)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Plastic Bags or GMOs...?

Every time I buy a loaf of bread I cringe when the grocer puts it into a plastic bag before handing it to me. And I have never failed to return the plastic bag to the grocer. Yet, the next time I go to him, he too never fails to place the nicely packed bread into a plastic bag. This just doesn’t happen when we buy bread. The same scenario is repeated when we buy anything else that already comes in good packaging and can be neatly carried away. I have travelled quite a bit, but I must say, we Malaysians can beat the rest of the world flat in our consumption of plastic bags. Many countries have banned this material that do not degrade in the next hundred or thousand years and is one of the cruellest source of pollution. Data from US Environment Protection Agency shows the worldwide consumption of plastic bags in a year is between 500 billion to one trillion. It costs more to recycle plastic bags than to produce new ones. Plastic bags find their way into the ocean through sewage pipes and drains, and also when tonnes of rubbish are dumped into the ocean. These bags have been found floating north of Arctic Circle, near Spitzbergen, and as far south as the Falkland Islands.

You may wonder why I am suddenly writing about plastic bags... But this issue has made me wonder many times. Why hasn’t the government done anything to curb this problem which is disastrous to the environment? Ban the use of plastic bags? Make consumers who request for plastic bags to pay, perhaps 10 cent extra for each bag? I am sure measures can be taken to address this. Yet, much effort is spent in propagating the ‘risks’ of GMOs. Some even go to the extent of labelling it as ultra-hazardous. It is not only the case of plastic bags, how about cigarettes which is clearly linked to many diseases?

It is beyond me why the activist groups who claim to protect the environment and human health single out GMOs. I once attended a meeting related to GMOs and there was a lady from an activist group who kept pointing out how dangerous GMOs can be. During coffee break I spotted the same lady happily puffing her cigarette. She came back to the meeting and continued to bash GMOs and telling the rest we should not compromise human health and the environment. I just wondered if she knew what she was talking about. There is so much more hypocrisy practiced by opponents of GMOs worldwide which I will share in another article.

Up to 2007, 282.4 million acres worldwide have been cultivated with GM crops in 23 countries by 12 million farmers, of which 11 million farmers are from 12 developing countries. More than a decade has passed since the first commercial cultivation and consumption of GM crops and GMOs, yet no single data shows detrimental effects to human and animal safety and the environment. Farmers are typical businessmen who will only undertake practices that are profitable to them. I quote by bosses’ favourite phrase here, “You can cheat farmers once but never twice”. This is from Clive James, the author of ISAAA global status of commercialised GM crops which is the most cited source in agribiotech. Yet, we see activists who sit in posh offices across cities in Europe making decisions for resource-poor farmers. More and more farmers in the Europe want to experience the same benefits reaped by their counterparts in the US and other countries. They are pushing their governments to approve GM seeds and crops. How long will they be deprived from this technology is yet to be seen. Do we really think farmers in Africa will reject a technology that will give them more yield? Will they reject crop varieties that will thrive in marginalised land and in drought areas? Who decides for them is yet another issue.

I am sure the fund, time, manpower and other resources spent on consultations, meetings, travels and other activities related to GMOs and trying to ‘safeguard’ mankind and the environment can be better spent in many other more pertinent areas. When GMOs become the mainstream, which I strongly believe will happen soon, we will sit back and ponder how much of our resources were wasted.

Back to my argument on plastic bags, I truly hope the responsible ministry and agencies will take some serious measures to reduce its usage, production, and pollution. This will do more good to the environment than trying to curb the spread of GMOs.

-by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

2009 National Budget

Just last month, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi unveiled the 2009 National Budget with the theme “A Caring Government” focusing on three specific strategies namely:-

1) Ensuring the Well Being of Malaysian
2) Developing Quality Human Capital; and
3) Strengthening the Nation’s Resilience.

National Budget is often one of the best indicators of the directions taken by the government to transform our country to be a developed nation. But unfortunately, the recent budget failed to carry the aspirations of our National Biotechnology Policy. Reading through the budget speech, I noticed that the biotechnology sector was hardly given any attention. Biotechnology plays a major role in all three strategies named above.

Looking at the first strategy, Biotechnology is one of the key technologies that can improve the quality of human life by leaps and bounds. Food security has been addressed quite well in the budget but unfortunately all the incentives are in the form of subsidy and tax reduction to reduce the burden of the farmers. Subsidies and tax incentives are definitely needed but may not be the best option in the long run. The government should be looking into transforming the agriculture industry into a high-tech industry by assisting the farmers to obtain the best technology for better yield and lesser use of manpower. Reduction on import duty on fertilizers and pesticides can temporarily reduce the burden of the farmers but it does not reduce their dependability on their continuous high usage of fertilizers and pesticides for better yield.

The second strategy is important to the biotechnology sector similar to the need of human capitals in other high-end industries such as electronics and ICT. As discussed in my previous post, retaining local biotech experts will be an easier task compared to luring back Malaysians in foreign countries. Reducing income tax rate by 1% may not be significant enough to retain local talents. Greater incentives in the form of higher pay and other benefits should be given to scientist similar to the incentives given to those professionals in the healthcare sector.

Looking at the third strategy, we have been consistently losing out foreign investors to neighboring countries. Investors from the west are flocking into Asia to tap into the biggest market (India & China) but unfortunately we see lesser FDI into our country compared to our neighbor’s esp. Thailand, Singapore and even Vietnam. Established foreign multinationals are definitely not looking for tax exemptions as their main criteria. The bait to bring them has to be in the form of strong human capital availability, transparent and business friendly policies and abundance of support services to enable them to sustain their businesses here. We are indeed lacking in all these areas in which the government has to play a major role in enabling a conducive environment for foreign companies to invest here.

We certainly need a biotech friendly budget to achieve the dream of our National Biotechnology Policy and 9th Malaysian Plan in transforming Malaysia into a developed nation. In year 2011, the implementation of the National Biotechnology Policy will enter the second phase which is transforming science to business. During this phase, we envisage sprouting of spin-off companies, blooming investment, knowledge-intensive job creation, technology acquisition and technology licensing, and developing of expertise in drug discovery and development. In other words, Malaysia should transform into a China or India in the next two years. Budget 2010 might be too late to address this. With the decline in growth rate in the manufacturing sector, the government should be more committed to develop the biotech industry in order to increase FDIs and GDP.
-by Joel William