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Biotechnology: play of colors with an innovation factor

BY ANKE WILDE

It is one of the industries with the highest innovation potential, and at the same time it is receiving great support from politics and the public sector: biotechnology. It has been on the rise in many areas for years, not just in that medicine, but also in agriculture, environmental technology, and waste management. 552 companies are already on the market. There are also 126 biotech companies, for example from the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, which rely at least in part on biotechnological processes. A status report on the biotechnology industry in Germany.

The biotech industry, with almost 34,000 employees, is anything but one of the major employers in Germany, even if you add the almost 31,000 employees from universities and other research institutions in this area. But the turnover of the companies that rely exclusively on biotechnology is growing steadily. Despite the economic crisis, it was 2.6 billion euros in 2011 and thus ten percent above the previous year's figure, according to the study "The German Biotechnology Industry 2012" ordered by the Federal Ministry of Research (BMBF) and produced annually by the platform www.biotechnologie.de .

According to the deputy chairman of the board of directors of the Association of German Biotechnology Companies (VBU), Dagmar Schwertner, the current situation is "in itself quite good." Many companies have now established themselves and there are regular startups, although not very many. Most of them are spin-offs from universities. For Schwertner, however, the downside is the financing of small biotech companies - the financial backers have become even more hesitant due to the economic crisis. "Large companies get involved in new developments later and later, with the effect that the research risk lies primarily with the small companies or in the research itself."

The BMBF study confirms this financing crisis. While a record 700 million euros in fresh money flowed into the industry in 2010, this figure fell to a meager 187 million euros last year. Above all, the donors of venture capital made themselves scarce.

In contrast, the industry's research expenditure has remained relatively constant: in 2011, companies pumped almost one billion euros into research and development. In addition, there are grants for universities and research institutions, which primarily support basic research. A full 3.4 billion euros from the public sector were available last year, plus 1.4 billion euros in third-party funding.

More and more biotechnological processes in industry

The emerging branches include, above all, industrial or white biotechnology. Although its name is still relatively unknown to the population, its products have long been on the shelves - or can be tapped at the petrol pump in the form of biofuel. Your greatest advantage: once indispensable petroleum products can be replaced by sustainable raw materials.

For example, if a manufacturer of cosmetic products advertises its shower gel with statements such as "With the best of olive oil and milk protein", then it may well be that bacteria were indispensable extras in the production process. In large bioreactors, the microorganisms produce enzymes, which in turn cut fat molecules from olive oil and protein molecules from milk at exactly the desired point. The molecular snippets obtained can in turn enter into new chemical compounds - in the case of shower gel, for example, with exactly the smooth consistency that one likes best in the cleansing water.

According to the BMBF study, five years ago there were still 36 companies that were dedicated to the manufacture of technical enzymes, new biomaterials or specific production processes. There are now 58 who are asserting themselves on the market - regardless of the large chemical groups that are also making use of the new processes. In its high-tech strategy, the federal government assumes that white biotechnology alone will increase its global sales from 50 billion euros today to 300 billion euros over the next ten years. Accordingly, it launched the "Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Initiative" last year. It intends to provide 100 million euros in the coming years for strategic partnerships between companies and science.

Red dominates biotechnological color theory

The most important branch in Germany, however, is the so-called red biotechnology, which covers the human and veterinary field. Almost half (47.9%) of all pure biotech companies are primarily active in this area. When it comes to treating serious illnesses, biopharmaceuticals do wonders. In this way, certain types of leukemia can finally be treated by specifically switching off the very genes that have mutated and are responsible for the malignant reproduction of white blood cells. Diabetics also benefit from red biotechnology. Your insulin is no longer produced from pig waste, but with the help of microorganisms.

Frank Mathias, Chairman of the Biotechnology Interest Group in the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (vfa bio), certifies that biopharmaceuticals are "hopefuls with slowed growth potential". In the report "Medical Biotechnology in Germany 2012", which is compiled annually by the Boston Conculting Group on behalf of his association, he blames the legislature for the stagnation in sales. The most important cause is the increase in the mandatory discount from six to 16 percent for statutory and private health insurance companies, which was prescribed two years ago.

According to the vfa bio report, sales in 2011 were 5.4 billion euros for genetic engineering drugs alone. That corresponds to almost a fifth of total sales in the pharmaceutical industry. 197 genetic engineering preparations have so far been approved in Germany, of which hormones such as insulin as well as growth and sex hormones make up the lion's share. More are on the way: According to the vfa bio report, there are currently more than 550 products in the pipeline with German company participation, which means that they are being tested in clinical studies. The focus is on drugs against cancer, infections and immunological applications. Of course, it is uncertain how many will successfully survive this process. In 2011, just four new preparations were approved.

Green genetic engineering with little support

Agrobiotechnology, which deals with the genetic modification of plants, has a rather poor status in Germany. According to the BMBF study, only four percent of biotech companies are active in this branch. Fears about possible dangers are too great among the population. Many scientists who dream of drought-resistant maize and less fertilizer-intensive rice, or even of poplars, which remove toxic heavy metals from the soil, say wrongly. Green genetic engineering also enables environmentally friendly cultivation methods, says plant geneticist Barbara Reinhold from the University of Bremen.

On the other hand, the discussions about the business practices of the seed giant Monsanto are highlighting the dangers of agrobiotechnology. Critics fear, among other things, that the group will drastically reduce the varieties used for agriculture and make farmers permanently dependent. Barbara Reinhold therefore wants a well-informed debate about transgenic plants - "with a responsible approach on the part of researchers and without religious wars far removed from scientific facts."

Even if the debate about green genetic engineering is rather shunned in Germany and politicians prefer to avoid expressing themselves positively about it - all in all, biotechnology in Germany enjoys immense political support. In its high-tech strategy, the federal government evaluates the biotech industry as one of the key technologies that should offer solutions for the challenges of the time and would be hardly conceivable without innovations. Next to it are branches of science such as nanotechnologies, optical technologies and microsystem technology - all research fields that deal with the smallest imaginable entities, and in which a second is half an eternity and a millimeter is a seemingly endless distance. It seems that not only the devil but also the future is in the details.

INFO-BOX: Biotechnology - an overview

In Germany, biotechnology is one of the sectors from which politicians are hoping for the most impetus for growth and innovation. It plays an increasingly important role in research and in the development of technical processes. Enzymes, proteins and even microorganisms are used to develop new medicinal substances and new materials for everyday use. The field of application of biotechnology is described using colors.

Red biotechnology

  • by far the most important branch in Germany
  • covers the entire field of human and veterinary medicine
  • Basic technologies that are necessary for this (e.g. changing the genetic code of animals in order to understand the cell processes that take place in a disease).

White biotechnology

  • on the advance in Germany
  • Use of technical enzymes through to microorganisms for new production processes and chemicals
  • Areas of application range from biofuels to new detergents and cosmetics to food additives

Green biotechnology

  • most controversial form of biotechnology in Germany
  • Development of plants with special properties for agriculture
  • Overlap with other areas of application, e.g. plant enzymes for medical or industrial applications

academics :: October 2012

Do a doctorate in biotechnology

BY ANKE WILDE

They are both doing their doctorate in cancer research - she on how certain active substances can best be transported into tumor tissue by vaccination, he on how these substances and their biochemical reactions can be described using a mathematical model. She has always wanted to work with a pharmaceutical giant; he dreams of founding a system biology department at his home university. Two ways to get a PhD in biotechnology.

Xin Lai can finally take a deep breath. The 29-year-old Chinese has just completed his doctoral thesis at the University of Rostock. It was already the middle of the night when he made the final corrections, saved the document, and sent it to the press. Now comes a weekend trip with the wife to Copenhagen, then research is on the agenda again.

Anna Maria Städtler still has it all ahead of her. The 26-year-old started her doctorate at Bayer Pharma AG a year ago, which she is completing as part of a joint project funded by the BMBF. She can still remember the first few days there very well - they were very tightly organized, and it was made very easy for her, the newcomer, to find her way into the new work environment. Then came a longer reading phase in which she devoted herself exclusively to the current state of research in her topic.

Research goal: drugs against cancer

Her topic includes the evaluation of nanotransport systems for so-called small interfering RNAs, short-chain ribonucleic acid molecules that are introduced directly into tumor cells. There, thanks to gene-regulating processes, they switch off the genes that ensure that the cells can divide unchecked and thus cause malignant growths. However, it is problematic to transport these molecules in a targeted manner to where they are supposed to act. In fact, RNA molecules are not intended to be present in the free bloodstream; they are broken down. The immune system also recognizes them as hostile intruders and reacts to them. That's why a kind of protective transport system is needed, says Anna Maria Städtler. "In our case, these are new, very branched molecules that bind the RNA and smuggle it into the affected cells, whereby tumor growth can be brought to a standstill."

Two transport systems that have been synthesized by the network partner, the Hague working group at the Free University of Berlin, have meanwhile been tested with promise in vivo, i.e. in the mouse organism. A third one, which already works well in vitro, i.e. in the test tube, is now also to be investigated in vivo. "It's all very application-related," says Städtler enthusiastically. "It's all about ultimately developing a drug that opens up new, life-prolonging therapy options for a patient." This application-oriented approach to doctoral studies, the transfer of science into medical therapy, is very important to her, and that is more likely to be found in a company than at a university.

Research goal: Models for the behavior of molecules

Xin Lai also deals with small RNA snippets that are supposed to dissuade tumor cells from their malignant activity. His approach, however, is completely different. He had studied computer science in his hometown of Chengdu in central China, and his doctoral thesis was about creating a mathematical model that precisely describes the effects of the RNA that has been introduced into the cell. The parameters that flow into such a model include, for example, the reaction speed, i.e. how quickly a protein is processed or converted into another molecule.

If such a model is good, it is possible to predict how a cell will behave under certain circumstances without any tests in the test tube or on mice. "Of course, such a model must then also be checked for its load-bearing capacity," says Xin Lai. In his case, this is done by a working group from Leipzig that is working with the University of Rostock on the research project. "You have to imagine it this way: You get all available data from the literature and from the experiments of your colleagues. You insert this into the model, and then again in the experiment it is investigated whether the predictions of the model are actually fulfilled. " If not, the model is corrected.

Doing a doctorate in industry or in independent research - a contrast?

An industrial doctorate or a doctoral thesis at a university or a research institute - both variants have their advocates and their opponents. Doctoral students in academic research hold industrial research up to a lack of freedom and too much focus on lucrative projects. Conversely, there is criticism that the publicly funded research institutes are poorly equipped and pay too little attention to the practical applicability of the research results.

Anna Maria Städtler finds the criticism of a doctorate in a research-based company unfounded. She receives very good professional support from Bayer and is encouraged to present her research results to the scientific public at conferences and in publications. "Of course, I have to agree beforehand whether this will address patent-relevant topics," she admits. But it is no different at universities - anyone who wants to secure a patent for their newly developed technologies does not speak about them publicly beforehand.

Xin Lai is also satisfied with the framework conditions for his doctorate. He was able to attend many conferences and did not have to interrupt his work with endless administrative acts, he says. And even if his work initially advances basic research, the application relevance is still given. "Ultimately, such models can help to develop therapies for previously incurable diseases," he points out.

The technical expertise makes the difference

And what do the HR managers say? Claudia Israel is a recruiting manager at Qiagen in Hilden, North Rhine-Westphalia. The biotechnology company employs around 1,400 people across Germany and 4,000 worldwide. Most of the doctoral candidates at her company have doctorates from university, she says. In the meantime, however, she has noticed that the industrial doctorate is gradually gaining in importance. "This is simply because the companies want to discover and retain well-qualified young people as early as possible," she says. From their point of view, however, it is not so important whether the title was acquired from a renowned university or from a leading company - what about what, the acquired skills and professional methods weigh much more heavily. She therefore advises graduates to think carefully about what their career goal is and to choose the path to get there accordingly.

Anna Maria Städtler had long considered a career with the internationally operating pharmaceutical company, which is why she applied to Bayer over a year ago. Xin Lai, on the other hand, wants to do research in the academic sector and would prefer to set up his own research laboratory or a department for systems biology at the university in his hometown of Chengdu. Measured against the goals they want to achieve, both of them have probably climbed the right rung on their personal career ladder.

academics :: October 2012