Friday, August 28, 2009

Where will the Dengue Fever Vaccine come from?

Dengue has been killing hundreds of people each year and the numbers is not going down. We have all been advised to spend 10 minutes every week to clean the pots and other mosquito breeding places around our houses. What else can we do? Is this enough to curtail the problem? Is cleaning around the house enough to deprive these creatures from breeding? Months ago we heard about the sterile male mosquitoes developed through GM technology which was supposed to be released to Pulau Ketam for a field trial. But thanks to the opponents of the technology, it did not materialise.

How about developing vaccines? What is the progress in this area? As a tropical country plagued with various tropical diseases, perhaps we should have a Centre for Research on Tropical Diseases. But again, will this answer the question and provide a solution? Who will head the centre? Who will set its direction and ensure it objectives and mandates are met? How will the funding be channelled? Do we have enough researchers to run it?

To save us all these troubles, Acuvax, a South-Australian based vaccine development company has announced that the dengue fever vaccine is set to begin phase I safety trials in the US through its affiliate company, Hawaii Biotech. This is the first recombinant subunit vaccine for dengue to enter clinical studies. The phase I study will lead to the initial clinical testing of Hawaii Biotech’s tetravalent dengue fever vaccine.

Isn’t that good news? Once the vaccine is approved for use, we can all say good-bye to dengue fever. But do not complain when we have to pay these multinationals premium prices for the vaccine. And do not also sing the same old song that multinationals are monopolising the industry. And for those who are against GM technology, please keep away from this vaccine. You might never know the risk... It is just easier and safer to clean around the house... just 10 minutes every week!

So to answer my question on where the dengue vaccine will come from, probably not from a country that is plagued by dengue. The developed countries know which tree to bark. There is huge potential in this vaccine with a huge marketplace.

If we are serious about our commitment to advance biotechnology and look into the priority areas that will benefit the nation and the people, we need to quickly sit down and analyse what is stopping us from moving forward. What are the stumbling blocks? Human capital? Brain drain? Politics? Getting the right people? Fund management? Perseverance?

Millions of dollars have been pumped into this research. Terra Rossa Capital has injected up to US$1.25 million in equity capital in the ACU subsidiary Acuvax Immunology Services. This is just part of the investment. The total investment to develop this vaccine is certainly much bigger. Could we have afforded this? Perhaps, yes. Looking at the amount spent on Antarctic and Space programmes, we can safely say we have the money. It is again barking the right tree!

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, August 21, 2009

Into the industry: the leap of faith

Of late MABIC has been getting some enquiries by Monashians who want to know about their prospects in the biotechnology industry. I have to apologise on behalf of all of us, as we were in the midst of a few major projects and we could not provide too much time for them to answer all their queries. They have been very concerned that when they come out, they graduate with a degree that leads them nowhere, and leaves them hanging in other less than ideal jobs in contrast to other industries like finance, IT etc. One of the major reasons is that, biotechnology being "non-traditional" doesn't really allow one to fall back on the usual strategies like sifting through newspapers or asking elders for advice. Many students realise after a year or two of studying biotech, that research is not their cup of tea. And they feel their future is doomed as they are not aware of the various opportunities that lie ahead of them with a degree in biotech. It is pure ignorance to think biotech graduates all end up as researchers. This is where they need to be exposed more to the biotech industry and the whole spectrum of career available in there.

Of course, lately, there has been much improvement in this sense, with graduates being offered training programmes like that of the BeST programme by BiotechCorp, and internships, as I noted in my last post, as well as bio-career fair during 25 Apr 09 to 26 Apr 09. It makes you wonder why students are still jittery over where they would end up, and what job prospects they would have in the long run.

Primarily, I think universities should take a more proactive role, by organising career talks not only general ones on how to write resumes and go for interviews, but real industry dialogues where students are allow greater interaction with industry players on their expectations, hopes and fears. At MABIC, we are planning a talk soon to address this issue at Monash, in hopes that students would get a better idea on what they should be expecting when they leave the hallowed confines of the ivory tower. On the other hand, it would also be shock therapy to them for them to find that some of their expectations might fall flat. For example, I remember some planning to earn RM3000-4000 per month as a fresh grad, when a more realistic range would be RM1,600-2,500.

I also am concerned on whether the students know enough to search for further information if they are in doubt. Bio-career was a big event organised by BiotechCorp, and graduating students should be attending to have a good gauge of what is waiting for them out there, instead of sitting in the darkened lecturer theater waiting for people to spoonfeed them with such information. If all else fails, google is just a click away and with their capabilities in searching through wikipedia to help them with their homework, why not use it to help them with their jobs.

To try and limit the scope of what careers in biotech is about is pretty silly, as biotech is vast that it would be plain impossible to try to define a single category of jobs. Graduates can apply jobs ranging from marketing to sales, research, science writing, and regulatory, just to name a few. I also know several close friends who end up out of the biotech field, and they are very happy with what they do. The scope is limitless and it only boils down to what one has a stronger preference for. I for one cannot envision myself sitting in a research lab analysing samples, while others may find my line of interviewing and writing on science issues intimidating. All I can say is, keep your eyes and ears open. If all fails, google is your friend. :) I will update on the bio-career dialogue soon. Until then.

- KC, Liew