Life Sciences Sector Is Expected To Explode


    GRAND RAPIDS — If you thought the computer revolution changed the world, wait until you see what the biotechnology revolution will do.

    The marriage of life sciences and information technology will drastically change how people live as emerging biotechnology impacts medical, agricultural and alternative energy industries.

    And Michigan has many of the components of a big player in the biotech field.

    The economic development of life sciences and IT was discussed at a recent forum presented at the Van Andel Institute by The Right Place Program, in partnership with Pacific Rim Alliance Ltd.

    The pilot forum, “Commercializing 21st Century Science for Michigan’s Emerging Growth Industries,” was based on the Pacific Rim Science Innovation Summit held in June in Beijing, China, and featured some of the summit’s keynote speakers.

    Michael Yates, chairman of the Pacific Rim Science Innovation Summit, addressed the convergence between IT and the biosciences.

    He said cracking the human genome is just part of the revolution taking place.

    Telecom, Internet, quantum science and nanotechnology are scientifically converging. It will be computers, IT and wireless technologies that will enable biotechnology to be exploited quickly.

    Yates said the “evident truths” are that IT drives innovation and productivity, but not always profits; that things are getting smaller and faster; that things are getting more connected and networks are becoming more pervasive.

    “Whether making furniture or drugs, you have to be connected,” he said.

    Biotech companies spent $22 billion last year on IT infrastructure.

    America, however, is not on top when it comes to wireless technology development. Japan is way ahead and Korea has a good chance of taking the top spot from Japan.

    It’s estimated that last year 60,000 transistors were being made for each person in the world. Before long it will be up to 1 billion transistors per person, Yates said.

    And before long, computers will become part of the clothes and accessories people wear.

    Nanotechnology, the science of building materials molecule by molecule, will transform chemistry and computing. It will likely be the pivotal technology of the new life sciences.

    As such, nanotechnology is going to be a huge market — a $66 billion market by 2005 — Yates pointed out.

    On average, biotech venture capitalists get a return on their investment in seven years. Using nanotechnology, they’ll get their money back faster, Yates said.

    No one country dominates the nanotechnology market; nobody is an expert in nanotechnology as yet.

    But nearly two times as much nanotechnology research is being done outside of the United States, Yates said.

    Companies need to figure out how they will use nanotechnology to their advantage and start planning for the capital investments that will be required.

    “Everything will use nanotechnology,” he said. “Choose where you want to use it and focus on it.

    “Companies should ask themselves, ‘How are we in our business capitalizing on scientific convergence? How can we take advantage of network pervasiveness? How can we make things smaller? How will we organize for convergence?”

    Network enterprise is becoming more complex, and eventually network alliances will have to be formed, Yates said.

    “Everything is getting connected to something else. That sense of convergence is both exciting and scary,” he said.

    Kevin Davies, editor in chief of Bio-IT World monthly magazine, spoke about business opportunities created by convergence of life sciences and IT.

    Davies outlined the beginnings of the human genome project and history of genomics to date.

    The challenge for many genetic companies right now is to find the really common diseases, he said. Researchers are currently looking at specific variations of heart disease, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

    As more and more disease-coded genes are identified, “the impact of genetic diagnosis — and even embryological pre-implantation — really looms large,” he said.

    An important advancing area of IT will be integrating clinical information with a person’s genetic information to create personalized medicine, with prescribed treatments based on a patient’s individual genetic profile.

    Davies said 10 to 30 years from now newborns may leave the hospital with a readout of their disease susceptibilities over their entire life — sort of like their DNA on DVD.

    In 1974, it cost $150,000 to sequence a single human gene. It’s estimated that by 2003 it could cost under $15.

    With all the variations among the 30,000 to 40,000 human genes, Davis said, there’s another century of hard work ahead before scientists really begin to fully understand all of the information.

    At this moment, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry revolves around about 400 active drug targets. Functional genomics have the potential to expand that universe to 10,000 or more.

    The first new wave of drugs has started to hit the market. Furthermore, some 300 biotech drugs are in phase III trials, suggesting 80 percent will be approved over the next five to six years.

    Proteomics, the large-scale study of proteins, is the next big challenge in the development of new drugs, Davies said.

    Proteomics, considered critical to the creation of commercial products, looks at “how and what genes express what proteins and what their exact linkages are.”

    Massive growth is expected in the life sciences sector, particularly in data storage software. The sector is expected to explode into a $30 billion market by 2006.

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