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As Biology fuses with Technology, Huge Possibilities Await Businesses and Mankind

Businesses have been reinventing means and accelerating strategies in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Similarly, the pandemic could be the launching point for a massive acceleration in medical innovation, with biology meeting technology in new ways.

Biotech is helping to heal the world by harnessing nature’s own toolbox and using our own genetic makeup while addressing some of the most critical global challenges. The scope covers a plethora of opportunities from climate change to pandemics, chronic diseases and growing demand for food amid rising population, especially in developing countries.

The most remarkable event in recent past with respect to microbial biotechnology was the lighting speed at which efficient and safe mRNA vaccines were development against COVID-19.

Creating a vaccine in under a year is no small feat. Even the Ebola vaccine, which was fast-tracked, took five years to reach widespread trials.

Urgency created momentum, but the bigger picture had bioengineering, genetic sequencing, computing, data analytics, automation, machine learning, and AI fuelling a new wave of innovation.

So far, biotechnology-based drugs have helped to bring down mortality due to coronary heart diseases and reduce the devastating impact of diabetes through introduction of recombinant or human version of insulin.

People diagnosed with cancer can now expect miracles owing to these breakthroughs, which has also helped to slow the painful, joint-destroying progression in rheumatoid arthritis.

Curing a child’s cancer by exploiting the bacteria in the gut or predicting a heart attack before one had it are some biotechnology solutions aimed at improving human health.

“Immunotherapy is a relatively new approach to treating cancer. In a nutshell, immunotherapy helps the body’s immune system recognize and attack cancer cells,” said Prof Mark Middleton, head of the Department of Oncology at the University of Oxford in the UK.

One key development that is likely to revolutionize how we monitor our health is biosensors, calibrated and designed to track various bio-signatures such as blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and body temperature.

Similarly, 3D bio-printing can create various human body parts such as heart valves, skin, and cartilage for use in medicine through the use of living cells. It is offering a means to test drugs faster with better biological relevance to humans and at a lower cost. This new tool also has the potential to eliminate the organ transplant waiting list, according to Allevi & Cellink.

The potential of the Bio Revolution, however, goes well beyond health with 60 per cent of physical inputs to the global economy, according to a new McKinsey Global Institute research, could theoretically be produced biologically.

From synthetic eggs and lab-grown bacon to that cornflakes in the cereal bowl made with corn grown using fewer pesticides, thanks to the development of corn that is resistant to insects and disease or bio-fuels produced by microbes engineered using synthetic biology or anti-aging face cream tailored to your skin’s genetic predisposition, and artificial spider silk and self-repairing fabrics, more than half of the potential direct economic impact from biological technologies applies to agriculture and food, materials and energy, and consumer products and services.

Detergent enzymes developed by biotechnology have replaced the phosphates that used to be a serious pollutant for water bodies. Similarly, Polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic substitute made from fermented plant starch (usually corn) is quickly becoming a popular alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics.

The market share of biofuels is also likely to rise with a steady increase in its efficiency and production until it’s able to compete on par with its chemical counterparts.

Biotechnology has allowed farmers to grow more food on less land using farming practices that are environmentally sustainable. Biotech crops naturally resist specific insect pests and diseases, help preserve the topsoil, improve soil fertility and dramatically reduce sedimentation in lakes, ponds, and waterways.

In short, this technology based on biology has helped to improve lives and health of our planet by harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes.

Those and other applications feasible through current technology could create trillions of dollars in economic impact over the next decade, the McKinsey paper added.

Essential for improving the quality and continuous existence of human life, biotech businesses are getting all the attention and a lot of funding from angel investors and grants from the government in India right now.

According to a report by India Brand Equity Foundation, India is among the top 12 destinations for biotechnology worldwide and has more than 2,700 biotechnology start-ups and more than 2,500 biotechnology companies. The Indian biotechnology industry is forecasted to be worth USD 150 billion by 2025, with a CAGR of 16.4 per cent.

It is a key part of India’s vision of reaching a USD 5 Trillion Economy by 2024, a report published in Invest India said.

Biopharma is the largest sector contributing about 64 per cent of the total revenue followed by bioservices (18 per cent), bioagri (14 per cent), bioindustry (3 per cent), and bioinformatics contributing (1 per cent), according to a report of Department of Biotechnology.

The Indian biotech industry’s share in the global market is market is also expected to grow to 19 per cent from 3 per cent as in 2017.

India is also leading in biosimilars, biologic medical products that are almost an identical copy of an original products manufactured by a different company, and the biologics market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 22 per cent to become USD 12 Billion by 2025.

While India has emerged as a leading destination for clinical trials, research and contract manufacturing activities, high demand for different biotech products has also opened up scope for the foreign companies to set up base in India.

Notably, India has 665 US FDA-approved plants, 44 per cent of the global abbreviated new drug applications (ANDA) and around 1400 manufacturing plants, which are compliant with the WHO.

The country is also the world’s third-largest producer of recombinant Hepatitis B vaccine and second-largest producer of BT cotton (genetically modified pest resistant plant cotton).

Several global companies have also joined hands with Indian companies due to India’s strong generic biotechnology potential.

With numerous comparative advantages in terms of R & D facilities, knowledge, skills, and cost effectiveness, the biotech industry has all the ingredients to witness a growth of USD 150 billion by 2025 with an annual investment of USD 4.01 billion to USD 5.02 billion in the next five years, making India a global leader in affordable healthcare, the report added.

The Union Budget 2021-22 outlaid Rs 1,660 crore (USD 227.94 million) for biotechnology research and development. The government also announced plans to set up nine biosafety level-3 (BSL-3) laboratories through Pradhan Mantri Aatmanirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojana.

While Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) has been established to strengthen and empower the emerging biotechnology enterprises to undertake strategic research and innovation, Atal Jai Anusandhan Biotech Mission aims to address the challenges of maternal and child health, antimicrobial resistance, vaccines for infectious disease, food and nutrition, and clean technologies.

In July 2021, India released ‘Biotech-PRIDE’ (Promotion of Research and Innovation through Data Exchange) guidelines with an aim to providing a well-defined framework and guiding principle to facilitate and enable sharing and exchange of biological knowledge, information and data to advance the understanding of the molecular and biological processes that will contribute to human health, agriculture, animal husbandry and fundamental research.

Among all these developments, it is pertinent to mention here that Epygen Biotech, an Indian Biopharmaceutical company engaged in research and manufacturing therapeutic proteins, has received funding from the Department of Biotechnology, to initiate the Phase I and Phase II trials of an indigenous affordable Receptor Binding Domain (RBD based vaccine) against present and future SARS-CoV-2 variants.

The development of COVID-19 vaccines is just the most compelling example of the potential of what MGI calls the “Bio Revolution”—biomolecules, biosystems, biomachines, and biocomputing.

The potential of the Bio Revolution goes well beyond health; as much as 60 per cent of the physical inputs to the global economy, according to MGI, could theoretically be produced biologically. Going by a recent McKinsey projection, those and other applications feasible through current technology could create trillions of dollars in economic impact over the next decade.


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