What is biotech anyway?

25 Sep 2017

Biotechnology takes biological processes to industrial scale. Image: NIBRT

It’s European Biotech Week – but what does that mean? Here’s your guide to biotech, its history and its modern-day significance.

Biotech Week

Starting today, 25 September, it’s European Biotech Week, a seven-day celebration of biotechnology as an innovative and vibrant sector.

The first European Biotech Week took place 60 years after the discovery of the DNA molecule (1953) and the past four editions have seen more than 450 events take place across Europe.

This fifth European Biotech Week is focused on telling the story of European biotechnology with a record 140 events taking place in 19 countries. The events – which include conferences, workshops, hands-on laboratories, exhibitions and more – are hosted at national and local level by a variety of organisations, companies and enthusiasts. Whether your knowledge of biotech is extensive or entirely absent, the aim is to engage and generally raise awareness of biotechnology’s discoveries, benefits and potential.

Biotech Week in Ireland

In Ireland, the week will see the 2017 ISPE Europe Biotechnology Conference arrive in Dublin from 26 to 27 September. This event will explore five megatrends in technology and regulatory development, and ask if capacity constraints hinder patient access to biologics.

The week will also begin the build-up to BioPharma Ambition, an all-island event that was first hosted in Dublin in 2016. BioPharma Ambition returns in February 2018 through the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, BioPharmaChem Ireland and the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT). Billed as a major international multifunction convention, the event will highlight the ambitions of the industry, explore where future research is leading and see how Ireland can support biopharma innovation.

Biotech in Europe

European Biotech Week is largely driven by EuropaBio, the largest and most influential biotech industry group on the continent. Representing 80 corporate and associate members and bio regions, and 17 national biotechnology associations in turn representing more than 1,800 biotech SMEs, EuropaBio’s mission is to ensure the European biotechnology industry has the support it needs to be innovative and dynamic.

Citing 2016 OECD figures, EuropaBio said the biotechnology industry in Europe accounts for more than 3,000 companies, of which 95pc are SMEs or micro-companies of 50 or less employees. And so, while there are massive multinational market leaders in this industry, a large proportion of the research and innovation in the biotech field is carried out by these smaller players.

However, biotech research and discovery can take years to become commercially viable, making it a high-risk industry with high development and testing costs. This month, EuropaBio issued a mid-term alert to the EU Commission, Parliament and Council, calling for the EU to put innovation-friendly policies back at the heart of their agenda, to benefit from the biotech potential to boost jobs and growth.

But what makes this scientific industry so significant?

History of biotech

Put simply, biotechnology uses living organisms, cells or cell components to create useful products. It is technology based on biology.

Biotechnology uses intact organisms (yeasts, bacteria or other microbes) or natural substances from organisms (enzymes) as biocatalysts. With biotech, we have learned to harness the power of naturally occurring cellular and biomolecular processes through controlled and deliberate manipulation to enable the efficient manufacture or processing of useful products.

It sounds very much like modern innovation but, in fact, we have been using the biological processes of micro-organisms for more than 6,000 years, since Ancient Egyptians first mastered the art of winemaking.

Fast-forward through the centuries and, in the 1800s, Luther Burbank’s development of more than 800 new strains of fruits, vegetables and flowers led him to the blight-resistant potato, which helped to end the Irish famine.

However, it wasn’t until 1919 that the word biotechnology was first used by Karl Erkey, a Hungarian agricultural engineer. Thousands of years and many scientific discoveries later, biotech had started to establish itself as a discipline.

Over the past 30 years, biologists have increasingly applied the methods of physics, chemistry and mathematics to gain precise knowledge, at the molecular level, of how living cells produce substances. By combining this newly gained knowledge with the methods of engineering and science, we arrive at the modern concept of biotechnology, which embraces all of the above-mentioned disciplines.

Applications of biotech

Biotech presents opportunities to address some of the world’s biggest challenges, including our increasing and ageing population, healthcare needs, resource efficiency, food security, climate change and energy shortages.

In healthcare, biotech has given us the industrial production of hormones, antibiotics, vaccines and more. Biotech medicine is used to treat and prevent everyday chronic illnesses (such as multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, diabetes and hepatitis) as well as rare or infectious diseases. We use biotech processes to develop new drugs and fight epidemics. Biotech can also help to create more precise tools for disease detection, and remarkable work is being done by biotechs producing ‘personalised’ medicine tailored to an individual patient, to increase its effectiveness and minimise health risks and side effects.

In food and agriculture, we have moved beyond simply fermentation. Biotechnology can be used to generate higher crop yields and make these crops hardier, to survive damage from pests or harsh environmental conditions. These innovations can help increase food security for a growing global population. What’s more, we can improve upon the food we consume by developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles that address particular deficiencies, or produce foods with fewer allergens and toxins. There are also related benefits to agricultural biotech in that improving the efficiency and sustainability of farming practices supports biodiversity, decreases soil disturbance and the use of both water and fuel, and, overall, reduces the environmental impact of farming.

Another way biotech contributes to the environment is through its applications in energy and industrial processes. The production of biofuels and chemicals from renewable biomass provides alternative and safer forms of global energy compared to fossil fuels. Biotech also helps to diminish the environmental impact of industry with processes that use less energy and less water, and produce less waste. One small but significant example of this is the use of enzymes and micro-organisms to improve the effectiveness of detergents, allowing clothes to be washed at lower temperatures. The processing of waste materials (also known as industrial or ‘white biotechnology’) transforms agricultural products and organic waste into other substances with the aim of substituting the need for crude oil as a starting material, which can help address climate change problems.

Who works in biotech?

This vast industry must be staffed by trained biotechnologists who not only have a sound basis of biological knowledge, but a thorough grounding in engineering methods, too.

Career prospects include research and development in academic, industrial and clinical areas, or work in industry such as food and drink, or chemical and pharmaceutical. There’s also quality control, process control, and even teaching, sales and marketing roles to fill.

In March this year, Killian O’Driscoll, projects director at NIBRT, said: “It is predicted that over the next five years, there’ll be upwards of 8,000 new jobs in the [Irish] biotech sector.” By May 2017, almost 850 jobs had been announced in the Irish biopharma sector alone, and Paul Strouts, global managing director for Hays Life Sciences, identified genetics and genomics as a key recruitment area for life sciences.

To snag those biotech jobs available, NIBRT HR consultant Siobhán Browne advised that those with a classic pharma background can upskill in bio to make the conversion. She added that the more practical the master’s degree – for example, working with growing cell lines – the more likely you are to go into industry at a more advanced level.

The main thing you need to look for in your education is a science or engineering background, with a strong focus on chemistry or biotech. While you can get a specific bachelor’s degree in biotech at institutions such as Dublin City University, University College Cork and Limerick Institute of Technology, it is more common for students to top up this qualification with a master’s degree.

There is a wide range of opportunities in the biotech and biopharma industry at the moment, and what you study largely depends on what area you want to go into, be it engineering, manufacturing or quality assurance.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic