Day 1 – The Keynote Lectures
Reveal the Hidden Treasures of Biotechnology – About Trends in Science
Science is becoming faster and faster and a matter of speed. That is the essence of the keynote lecture about trends in biotech science held by Prof. Huimin Zhao from the University of Illinois. He showed the fully automatized laboratory at the Illinois Biological Foundry for Advanced Biomanufacturing where all processes are connected to each other without almost any human interaction. Instead, a robot is moving through the lab and performing all necessary tasks. Zhao: “In the 1980s a biotech experiment took several years. In our days same days have to be calculated while in the nearer future several hours would be sufficient.” That is possible because of innovative technologies like TALEN and CRISPR. Zhao’s research group used TALEN to explore the sickle cell disease or to study chromatin dynamics during the stem cell differentiation.
Zhao sees two main trends for biotechnology. First, new drugs have to be developed based on natural resources like the bacteria, fungi or plants. He mentioned the need for new antibiotics because of the rapid adoption of bacteria to known substances. Second, the secret treasures of biotechnology have to be unveiled, the “cryptic pathways” that are still unexplored although the DNA of more than 4000 organisms is already sequenced and available. The activation of cryptic pathways from actinobacteria in Zhao’s group using synthetic biology led to new natural substances with complex chemical structures. 1.5 million yet unknown products are this way available only from actinobacteria and some of them could be very useful e.g. in medicine. Zhao: “The future is fast, automated systems for the discovery of new products based on known sequence information.”
Catherine Goodman, a senior editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and former editor of Nature Chemical Biology, added some more bullet points regarding the future of biotech research from an editor’s view. Looking into the scientific crystal ball she sees enzymes that have more than one function, that inhibition can lead to activation, and that synthetic compounds turn out to be natural – all based on publicized research. Additionally, Goodman mentioned the real challenge for science – to know what is commercially meaningful instead of performing research just because of scientific interest.
Small is Beautiful -Trends in Industry
The biotech industry is facing significant challenges these days. According to Klaus Graumann, head of drug substance development, biopharmaceutical process and product development at Novartis, the human life is changing rapidly. New technologies allow to monitor the human health in real time, targeted therapies, tools to analyze big data, less industrial products with blockbuster qualities, the costs of research and development, the trend towards outsourcing and a still increasing competition will lead to a change of the industrial landscape. Graumann mentioned speed – the speed to reach the market, high throughput experiments and analyses, and fast and reliable, tailored clinical programs because “the number of people looking for healthcare is increasing faster than it can be mastered. Therefore, we need an expanded toolbox for research to develop new therapies.”
As stated by Graumann, the most significant contributors to the costs of biopharmaceuticals are marketing and sales (37 %), costs of goods (25 %), research and development (17 % ), and taxes (14 %). Searching for optimization, the biotech industry found the Holy Grail in downsizing. “There is not that much leverage by increasing the yield”, says Graumann. Instead, small, flexible and reconfigurable plants with intensified (high-density batch) processes can reduce the costs dramatically by up to more than 50 %. This will help reducing costs. However, the pharmaceutical industry is still searching for the tools the enable them to produce the new medicines of the coming 30 years; whatever that will be.
Manfred Schuster, founder, and CEO of RMB Research presented an example of a new therapeutic approach. His company deals with the treatment of Chronic wounds that more than 10 Mio people in the USA and in Europa struggle with. The costs for therapies are up to one Bio Euro annually; a huge market to cope with. RMB research found a quite small protein called human Stathmin-1 (with a size of about 17 kDa) to be highly active in the therapy of wounds not healing within eight weeks. “It acts on stressed cells and triggers a stimulus by inflammatory cytokines or even bacteria. It works exactly where it should”, says Schuster whose researchers have formulated a gel called “Statmicoll” after nine years of research and development. Still in the preclinical phase, RMB wants to exit from the clinical program in 2021. Schuster: “Our advantage as a small company is an enhanced flexibility that either allows us to provide new technologies for big pharma.”
Decarbonization of Economy and Food for People – Biotech Meeting Politics
Waldemar Kütt, head of the unit Biobased Products and Processing at the European Commission, talked about several challenges that our society is facing: According to the bio-economy strategy plan of the European Commission, we have to unlock the potential of seas and oceans, should mobilize the rural and coastline economics and boost bio-based methods in order to feed nine bio people and to get rid of all petrol based technologies. Several countries have already established strategies for growth in bio-economy with leading contributions in Finland and Poland.
As stated by the European Union, science should focus on the utilization of food waste (30 % of food is wasted in the European Union), the formation of products (e.g. plastics) from waste, and the use of biomass for different purposes like bio-refineries or plants that generate energy from waste materials. Kütt: “This transformation of technologies will help to create 1,3 mio jobs in the bio-economy“. Unleashing the potential of “cardoon” demonstrates the power of bio-economy. The plant from Sardinia is used for producing biofuel or bioplastic (shopping bags). “Although there are concerns that biomass can’t fulfill the needs of society, our calculations showed that even in 2050 there is a surplus of biological resources if we replaced fossil resources entirely”, says Kütt, “finally, we have to decarbonize the economy and to feed the people”.
In order to change the bio-economic landscape, the European Union set up several funding programs (Horizon2020, 3.8 bio Euro) und models for public-private-partnerships like the one managed by the Biobased Industries Consortium that is headed by Dirk Carrez. The Bioconsortium is a melting pot of interests of industry and research with 72 full and 159 associate members from several industrial sectors (agriculture, food, forestry-pulp-paper, providers of technologies like the enzyme business, chemical industries, and the energy sector). The Bioconsortium manages 3.7 bio Euro from 2014 to 2020 (1 bio granted from the EU) that is be spent for projects focused on feedstock, biorefineries for biobased production (like fibers, chemicals, polymers, textiles, food ingredients, or pharmaceuticals). Carrez emphasized the role of regions and the benefit for farmers and local small and medium industries that can apply for rural development funds.
Finally, Peter Schintlmeister, senior technology officer life sciences at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research & Economy, highlighted a change of buzzwords in public funded projects. “Gene technology” or “biotech” have been replaced by “climate change”, “bio-economy” or “demographic changes”. “To get a proposal approved today you have to justify which social challenges are addressed and solved and not which scientific progress will be achieved,” says Schintlmeister.
Interestingly, the panelists assessed a declining role of the universities in funded research projects. Carrez: “Not basic research is needed, but applications. Research institutes are better prepared than universities and have better contacts to form new partnerships and start new industrial projects.”
Open Access – the Dangers of Publishing and Reading For Free
Most traditional scientists struggle with high costs for publishing in renowned journals (except for being accepted) although the number of scientific journals has by far blasted the rationally knowable number. “Journals are just one possibility. Today there are so many other ways to communicate scientific progress and to find an audience”, states Catherine Goodman, senior editor at the Journal of Biological Chemistry. However, impact factors and famous publication are still regarded most extremely important. Because of the raising costs for publishing and reading journals, the scientific community peers towards open access publications. “With 35 Mio Euro annually, renowned journals are highly expensive for Austrian librarians. Not only we need a change,” says Patrik Danowski, manager of the library at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria. Some states have set up ambitious goals. Finland or Austria want to use 100 % open access publications until 2025, Denmark wants to realize this vision until 2022.
Michaela Vignoli wants to go one step further. In her scientific project “open up” she examines how to open research data, how to open the peer review process, and new ways for dissemination that could replace classical dissemination in the long run. “The current dissemination system is old fashioned. We have to reach our audience in an appropriate way. The public and the world of business don’t read journals”, says the scientist from Digital Safety and Security Department at the Austrian Institute of Technology.
Editor Catherine Goodman has a quite critical point of view regarding open access: “In order to sustain quality, editorial and reviewing work has to be done. That has to be paid somehow”. As most quality newspapers charge money for a subscription, quality journals will have to do the same. Therefore, free and open access approaches are good for the budget of the scientific community, but not combinable with a high-quality reviewing process that finally guarantees the quality of the research itself.
Austria – Slovenija: Building up a Common Culture in Biotechnology
Good news: Within the framework of ESIB, Austria and Slovenija moved one great step closer to each other. Responsible and culture-designing people from both nations met in the special session “Connecting Regions” organized by the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (acib) in order to exchange ideas, possibilities and common future goals. New opportunities out of the European region strategies can help building up a vivid, strong basis for good cooperation in research, education, and exchange among the neighbors. To strengthen the (nowadays forgotten, but once powerful) European region Urban Krajcar (Science Directorate – Ministry of Education, Science and Sports, Slovenia), Martina Hartl (Deputy Head of Department International Research Cooperation – Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy, Austria), Sabina Cimerman (Office of the Styrian Provincial Government, Dpt. 17 – Provincial and Regional Development, Austria), Robert Steinegger (Institut for Economic and Site Development, Styrian Federal Economic Chamber, Austria), Karin Stana-Kleinschek (Guest Prof. Institute for Chemistry and Technology of Materials (ICTM) of TU Graz, Austria) and Klemen Hrovat (Director of Sales, Genialis, Start up, Slovenia) met in a session and discussed new strategies in building up a vivid, strong basis for good cooperation in research, education and exchange among the neighbors.
It´s now time to combine the knowledge and set common goals. As a next step, joint efforts will be arranged to handle future proposals. All participants hope to enhance the visibility of the existing potential in biotechnology and to build up a common base of knowledge, gained from an active exchange, and by that to contribute to the growth of the economic and of future jobs in innovative fields in the whole region.