Modern biotechnology made its beginning with the development of molecular cloning and recombinant DNA technologies in the early 1970s, following the discovery of the double-stranded DNA structure and deciphering of the genetic code. A very powerful research tool for genetic manipulation became available, making possible what could not have been dreamt of before.
Although Bangladesh was slow on the uptake, today many of the top universities and some government research organisations have well-trained molecular biologists with the required skills. Selective use of modern (third-generation) biotechnology, supported by information technology, can make a huge impact on meeting our national priorities, generate new intellectual property (IP), and help to make our research internationally competitive. Hopefully, this will also go some way towards improving the dismal international ranking of our major universities.
The sequencing of the jute genome, made possible by a generous, ad hoc grant from the prime minister, is an example of what modern biotechnology could achieve in Bangladesh if adequately supported. The jute genome sequence provided new and valuable information needed to engineer novel varieties of jute with better fibre quality, faster growth and resistance to disease and adverse environmental conditions. Post-genome research would have been faster and more fruitful if the tools for advanced functional genomics and transgenic technologies were in place, and if there was a better understanding of patent laws.
Biotechnologists in Bangladesh are also involved in high-level research in the early stages of developing food and cash crops resistant to adverse effects of climate change and infectious diseases. A number of universities and government research centres are heavily involved in agricultural biotechnology research. Between them they have the critical mass of manpower to adequately address national priorities such as food security and use of agricultural and forest waste for production of biofuel through biotechnological processes, provided there is adequate funding and access to contemporary cutting-edge technologies.
By contrast, there is very little research being carried out in health biotechnology even though the opportunities are sky high, and many young scientists with expertise in the area have returned home in recent times. Stem cell research, gene-editing technology for in vivo repair of genetic disorders, and personalised medicine made possible by new generation sequencing, are only a fraction of amazing possibilities. But two areas of new biotech medicines, biosimilars and novel medicines from the biota, deserve immediate attention for their potential to meet domestic healthcare needs and generate export earnings.
Highly efficacious monoclonal antibodies like biologic drugs, produced by recombinant DNA technology, totally dominate the international market. Because of the exorbitant cost of these new biologics (more than USD 50,000 per patient per year), there is a huge demand for cheaper copies (biosimilars), which the local pharmaceutical sector should take advantage of. A number of local pharmaceutical companies have started producing this new class of biosimilars by “fill-finishing” with imported recombinant proteins, as they are reluctant to invest heavily in new technology and production facilities and feel that clinical trials and regulatory approval (from Directorate General Drug Administration) will be easier with imported and well-characterised active ingredients. These assumptions are misplaced.
Despite its newly-earned economic status, Bangladesh will remain exempt from patent restrictions till 2033 and is, therefore, free to copy any biologic on the market irrespective of its patent status, giving it a huge competitive advantage over potential rivals such as China, India and Korea. This is a unique opportunity for academia-industry partnerships to open the door for Bangladesh to try to capture even a small percentage of the anticipated USD 3 trillion international market for biologic and biosimilar medicines.
The production of new biosimilars from molecular clones could considerably lower the production costs to bring these new life-saving drugs within the reach of the common man, and boost export earnings for Bangladesh. Local biotechnologists have the technical knowhow to produce molecular clones of biosimilars by the reverse engineering of biologics, including those still under patent, but local drug companies will need to be persuaded to manufacture biosimilars from molecular seed clones developed in Bangladesh.
Another area of research that has huge potential is the discovery and development of new medicines from the unique biota and very rich biodiversity of Bangladesh. Local scientists have published extensively on medicinal plants and their chemical constituents but hardly any patents or products have resulted from these studies. The screening of natural product libraries with disease-specific bioassays (measurement of the concentration or potency of a substance by its effect on living cells or tissues) could result in the discovery of novel lead compounds, which could be converted into candidate drugs using a range of cutting-edge molecular technologies. The research requires multidisciplinary collaboration between molecular biologists (local and NRB), ethnobiologists, and pharmaceutical, computational and synthetic chemists. New IP (patents) resulting from the research can foster partnership with industry for commercialisation, and also generate private-sector funding for developmental research and clinical trials.
For optimum use of modern biotechnology and other contemporary technologies for socioeconomic progress, there needs to be long-term planning and coordination at the national level. Research productivity is dependent on a critical mass of full-time researchers including research students (MSc and PhD) and postdoctoral fellows, and access to cutting-edge technologies. Taxpayer-funded research should aim at product development, and local industry should be encouraged, through tax and financial initiatives, to manufacture home-grown products and support developmental research.
Funding has to be adequate and sustained over long periods—hardly possible with only one percent of annual budget allocated to higher education and 0.4 percent of GDP to R&D. Some strategic thinking is required to make the most of the very limited funding available for research. Instead of spreading it too thin, these limited funds should be used to support a small number of projects in areas of highest national priority.
The UGC could ring-fence meagre research funds to selectively support postgraduate research within strong and productive research groups and encourage multidisciplinary collaboration between research teams possessing complementary expertise and facilities. Such networks could be the nucleus of future research universities. The Ministry of Science and Technology, together with UGC, could establish a National Research and Innovation Council (NRIC) to support and coordinate research in areas of highest national priority. The high-tech equipment and full-time research staff in government laboratories, such as Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, should be redeployed in areas of high-priority research. The NRIC could fund high-priority research through a national collaborative research programme, where funding would be conditional upon establishing collaborations between academia, government research centres and industry. The NRIC should also establish a national core facility for cutting-edge technologies, and a one-stop technology transfer office, for the benefit of all researchers in the country.
The above measures could allow Bangladesh to become internationally competitive in biotechnology and other high-priority research. Hopefully, the allocations for postgraduate research and national R&D will reach desired levels in the near future.
Dr Ahmed A Azad is a former scientific advisor to the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in Trieste, Italy.