Thanks to advances in science, the population of the Earth is expected to grow to between seven and ten billion people by 2050, according to the United Nations. Shortages of food, energy and water and increased pollution will be some of the major problems that humans will have to resolve as a result. Biotechnology is one option for providing solutions to the problems of tomorrow through clean fuels; genetically modified seeds that lead to improved performance and quality, and the development of medicines to cure a variety of diseases.
Alberto D'Andrea, director of the bachelor’s degree program in biotechnology at UADE, the Argentine business school, notes that “In two or three years, humanity will be at a turning point. Devices will be available that perform the human [gene] sequencing, and in only four hours, we will be able to know our own genome. This information will tell us, for example, what mutations and diseases we have in our body.” D’Andrea calls these innovations “a revolution in every sense — not something utopian — and very serious companies such as the Swiss-based multinational Roche have announced that they will be ready for this in 2014."
Argentina has also been affected by this revolution. In 1972, at about the same time that modern biotechnology first emerged in the U.S. with the discovery of recombinant DNA, a technique used for manipulating the DNA molecule in vitro was born at an Argentine company called Bio Sidus. The company not only pioneered the manufacture of biopharmaceuticals for treating anemia, sclerosis, and hepatitis B, but also became famous for creating Pampa, the first calf cloned in the country (in 2002).
"At the time, there was a steady stream of scientists with doctoral degrees from outside [Argentina] who then returned," notes Mario Aguilar, director of the Institute of Biotechnology and Molecular Biology (IBBM), which is funded by the National University of La Plata (UNLP) and the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), a division of the National Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation. As early as the mid-1980s, during the administration of President Raúl Alfonsín, Argentina "had already established an institute of biotechnology in order to exchange scientific and academic in MERCOSUR [an economic and political alliance of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay],” Aguilar adds.
This set the stage for the flowering of the biotechnology industry in the country. Today there are over 130 biotechnology companies in Argentina, mostly small and midsize enterprises that are dedicated to addressing human and animal health, the assisted fertilization of seed inoculants for agriculture, as well as the development of the biodiesel industry. D'Andrea notes, for example, that the Argentine pharmaceutical industry has about 400 laboratories that are working with biopharmaceuticals.
This business network made it possible for the first joint mission of Argentine public and private-sector companies to visit China in mid-March in order to open that market and export higher-value products. "We [in Argentina] don’t want to continue to be [only] producers of soybeans and raw materials,” Faustino Siñeriz, director of CONICET, told the press. “Money comes when you bring knowledge into the entire value chain.”
Agriculture is one of the fields where the country’s biotechnology sector has already made great strides. Specifically, according to D’Andrea, 25% of the country’s grain exports are of transgenic origin; that is to say, genetically modified.
In 2001, a company called Bioceres was established by 23 Argentine farmers in order to establish biotechnology projects for agriculture. “One of the strongest technologies that began to be effective in 2005 grew from a discovery made by Dr. Raquen Chan of the National University of the Littoral, concerning a gene that enables crops to withstand drought and salinity,” says Claudio Dunan, director of strategy at Bioceres. The gene has been developed and patented, and Bioceres has already incorporated it into crops such as sorghum, canola and alfalfa. “[In February,] we made an agreement with [Davis, Calif.-based] Arcadia Biosciences to market the technology worldwide in soybeans under the brand name of Verdeca. It will be ready in 2015,” adds Dunan. The development process for the gene involved an initial investment of US$20 million, but it is expected to increase crop yields by 15%.
Dunan notes that Bioceres has a strong combination of public and private sector resources because it receives support from CONICET and university researchers. “You have to depend on this sort of cooperative knowledge and technology when you are developing products with added value," he says. "We have first-rate scientists, and we don’t have any disadvantages compared with other countries.” However, at the country level, “there is a shortage of large-scale development organizations such as ours, where we manage to bring together 230 shareholders, and the government also participates.”
That viewpoint is shared by Carlos Dupetit, general manager of Amega Biotech, founded in 2005 for the production and marketing of bio-pharmaceuticals. Dupetit says that the public and private sectors must collaborate so that Argentina’s chances of becoming a source of biotechnology producers continue to grow. “Perhaps there is a shortage of coordination between the government and business,” Dupetit notes. “However, we in the private sector have a responsibility to collaborate and help so that things happen.”
Amega, which has 210 professionals on its staff, has invested more than $80 million since its creation. It now exports 90% of its products to 20 countries. “We are producing 15 proteins for medicinal preparations in humans. The proteins are for addressing kidney failure, multiple sclerosis, cancers and coagulation factors,” says Dupetit. “Our operations are in three plants. There are two in the province of Santa Fe and another that we are constructing in Buenos Aires with a grant that the World Bank gave us in 2009,"
Another growing Argentine biotechnology firm is Kheiron, which is dedicated to preserving and replicating genetically valuable horses by using the most modern techniques for cell reprogramming. The company also provides therapies for regenerative medicine and stem cells, as well as services for determining the sex of embryos. “Our main business line is the cloning of polo and jumping ponies. There are only two laboratories that work on this — ours and one in Texas,” notes Matias Buján, the company’s director. Located in Parque Austral in Buenos Aires, Kheiron was established by Austral University and Taurus Investment Holdings to serve as a location for innovative companies.
Kheiron’s research team, which originated in the agronomy department of the University of Buenos Aires, was the first in Latin America to clone a horse. “We hire horses that play polo because the cloning process allows us to make an exact copy of a specimen, although it is one born at a different time [from the original,] Buján says. “A horse has value from two points of view: performance and reproduction. If the cloning is for performance, then the horse that is born has all of the potential of the donor, but it can turn out better or worse depending on its life experience. In contrast, when you are cloning a very good mother or reproductive stallion, the clone is going to be exactly the same as the donor. The horse breeder clones the best specimens in order to multiply its factory of colts.” This service may cost as much as $100,000.
Human Resources, Regulations and Competitiveness
Most Argentine professionals in this sector have emerged from the country’s own classrooms, and that trend is expected to continue in the future. “Our country was a pioneer in Latin America when it came to providing degrees in biotechnology, as in such universities as the National University of the Littoral, Quilmes, San Martin, as well as at private institutions such as UADE. I estimate that about 100 degrees in biotechnology are granted annually,” D'Andrea notes.
Aguilar at IBBM adds that Argentine professionals are highly motivated because “our Ph.D. scientists are well positioned to do post-doctoral work in the U.S. and Europe. In fact, I receive invitations to propose people to projects outside the country, and to engage in collaborative projects. Moreover, our country has produced scientific publications abroad.” But Aguilar notes that, “there is a shortage of practical training for connecting the development of theoretical knowledge with the application of that knowledge in the enterprise system. People have noticed that science is being produced, but it would be best to create a network for transferring information about achievements and results to potential targets entrepreneurs.”
He also points out that launching a biotechnology project means taking on a certain degree of risk. “When you develop a product such as genetically modified soy beans, in addition to what you invest in biology, you have to add the regulatory and validation processes for the product in the market, which may cost more than the development itself.” D'Andrea is also concerned about the lack of regulation in the biotechnology sector. “We need to know who can work with a genome and who can’t. Some people have the idea that we should create professional associations in every province to advance in this area. Many experiments have to be done with appropriate standards, and it will be very important to regulate the profession” in the future, D’Andrea says.
At Amega Biotech, Dupetit notes that in terms of its competitiveness, Argentina is very well positioned because each treatment for humans costs only about three U.S. dollars, compared with $70 in Europe. However, he notes, looking to the future, Argentina “has yet to study which regulations to adopt, and there hasn’t been a regulatory debate about health-related or business topics, although the Argentine Chamber of Biotechnology is working on that. In fact, at Amega Biotech, we have been studying the [Argentine] customs code to figure out how we are dealing with other countries” at the moment.
The world is experiencing many challenges because of climate change and the economic crisis, so it is vital to be more efficient about the way resources are used, Dunan says. “We are facing a change in the economic paradigm, and the world has to be more efficient. We must commit ourselves to developing value-added knowledge and technology. Argentina will be important if it manages to follow along that path.” Adds D'Andrea, “It is time for us to use the millions of genes that we have discovered to create a new economic matrix, to reestablish lost patterns in nature and make life possible on Earth. There is only one Plan B. It is time for bio-economics, biotechnology and the bio-enterprise.”