After the first DNA cloning experiments 40 years ago, genetic engineering techniques have developed genetically designed microorganisms, and cells, engineered molecules and ways to new find genes and figure out how they work, and even transgenic animals and plants. After this revolution, commercial applications have exploded, and an industry developed around techniques like directed mutagenesis, gene cloning, DNA sequencing, RNA interference, biomolecule labeling and detection, and nucleic acid amplification.
Main Biotech Markets: Medical and Agricultural
The biotech industry divides into the medical and agricultural markets. Although biotechnology has been applied to other areas like industrial production, chemical production, and bioremediation, the use in these areas is still limited. On the other hand, the medical and agricultural industries have each undergone an amazing biotech revolution with new and often controversial research efforts, development programs, and business strategies to discover, alter, or produce novel biomolecules and organisms using bioengineering.
The Biotech Start-Up Revolution
Biotechnology has introduced a whole new approach to drug development, which did not easily integrate into the chemically-focused approach that most of the established pharmaceutical companies had been using. Since there was an established venture capital community for the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley, many of the early biotechnology companies also clustered in the San Francisco Bay area. Over the years, several hundreds of start-up companies are being founded, and hot-spots have also developed in the US around Seattle, San Diego, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, Boston, and Philadelphia, as well as a number of international locations including areas around Berlin, Heidelberg, and Munich in Germany, Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and the Medicon Valley in eastern Denmark and southern Sweden.
Who are these Biotechnology Companies?
Biotechnology has been instrumental in the screening stages and initial drug discovery. Major pharmaceutical companies have active discovery research programs that are heavily reliant on biotechnology and smaller new companies such as BioMarin Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon, and Exelixis that focus on the discovery of drug and development often using unique proprietary techniques. There are companies like Abbott Diagnostics and Becton-Dickenson that are looking for ways to use new disease-related genes to create new clinical diagnostics. A lot of these tests identify the most responsive patients for new drugs coming on the market. Also, supporting research for new drugs is a long list of research and lab supply companies that provide basic kits, reagents, and equipment.
Designing New Drugs Faster(Medical Biotechnology)
Medical biotech has revenues exceeding $150 billion annually, receives the bulk of biotech investment and research dollars. This part of biotech starts with basic research to identify genes or proteins associated with particular diseases which could be used as drug targets and diagnostic markers. Once a protein target or a new gene is found, thousands of chemicals are screened to find potential drugs that affect the target. The chemicals that look like they might work as drugs then need to be optimized, checked for toxic side effects, and finally, tested in clinical trials.
Better Food (Agriculture Biotech)
The same biotechnology used for drug development has also helped in the improvement of food and agricultural products. However, unlike with pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering did not generate a rash of new agriculture biotech start-ups. The difference may be that, despite the technological leap forward, biotech did not change the nature of the agricultural industry. Manipulation of crops and livestock to optimize genetics to enhance utility and improve yields has been going on for thousands of years. In a way, bioengineering is providing a convenient new method. Established agricultural companies, such as Monsanto and Dow, simply integrated biotech into their R&D programs.
Plant and Animal GMOs
One of the main focuses of agriculture biotech is crop enhancement. Since the first genetically modified corn was introduced in 1994, transgenic crop staples such as soybean, wheat, and tomatoes have become the norm so that now more than 90% of US-grown corn, soybeans, and cotton are bioengineered. Remember Dolly, the first cloned sheep? That was in 1996. Now animal cloning is becoming more common, and it’s clear transgenic farm animals are on the immediate horizon. Although genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have generated a lot of controversy in recent years, agriculture biotech has become pretty well established.