Is the biotech revolution a myth?

One of scientists' main selling points to gain government support for stem cell research has been its dramatic potential for rapid progress. The new field of biotechnology would revolutionise medicine and bring billions of dollars of revenue to investors and governments. Tony Blair has made it a key element of his science policy and Californians recently approved US$3 billion in funding over the next 10 years. Even developing countries like South Korea and South Africa are investing heavily in biotech. However, a study commissioned by the British government has concluded that rapid returns are a pipedream. "There is now a substantial mismatch between the real world and the unrealistic expectations of policy- makers, consultants and social scientists," concluded Paul Nightingale, of the University of Sussex and Paul Martin, of the Institute for the Study of Biorisks and Society.

In an article in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, the two sociologists argue that biotechnology, like every other innovation, follows "a well-established, historical pattern of slow and incremental technology diffusion". Although basic science is advancing rapidly, the effect upon technology will be "far more difficult, costly and time-consuming than many policy-makers believe". Exciting early applications have involved the drug industry picking the "low-hanging fruit" -- but further progress is much harder. Only a handful of successful new biologic drugs have been developed since recombinant DNA techniques were developed in the 1980s. And despite a ten-fold increase in spending world-wide, the total number of drugs has remained steady.

Why have so many people lost their head in the hype over biotech, ask Nightingale and Martin. "A key factor is the need for innovators and their sponsors to create high expectations to get access to the very considerable resources... required to develop new medical technologies," they contend. "No one is going to invest in a start- up company, or a large-scale scientific endeavour, such as the Humane Genome Project, unless they genuinely believe it has the potential to yield significant returns in a defined timescale. The emergence of the biotechnology industry has rested heavily on the creation of these high hopes."

Furthermore, they say, it is becoming increasingly clear that, because of the complexity of the human body, understanding medical science does not necessarily lead to new medicines. The biotech revolution is based on a reductionist, genetic model of disease which is looking more and more out-of-date as scientists understand the environmental, lifestyle and social origins of disease. Unrealistic expectations are dangerous," they warn, "as they lead to poor investment decisions, misplaced hope, and distorted priorities, and can distract us from acting on the knowledge we already have about the prevention of illness and disease."


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