| Australia: Harvesting biotechnology
CARINA DENNIS AND NIALL BYRNE
Australia has been a quiet player on the international biotech
scene, but in recent years it has been taking strides to reinvent
itself as tomorrow's young entrepreneur. This supplement to
Nature charts that transformation.
The Australian federal government's announcement last month
of a ten-year investment programme for research and development
(R&D) should please biotech developers. The package includes
more than A$1 billion (US$700 million) over the next seven
years to help bring Australian research discoveries to market.
This will merge and supersede several existing programmes,
creating a 'one-stop shop' for developers and investors alike
to commercialize Australian research discoveries.
The initiative follows a tendency in recent years for the
nation's researchers to focus their attention on areas deemed
to be of national priority, an agenda set by the government
in 2002 (see Nature
420, 591; 2002). The Commonwealth Scientific and
Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Australia's
largest research body led the movement, redirecting
a third of its budget into six priority areas.
This shift towards applied science has stirred controversy
among academics, who tend to advocate pure research, unfettered
by commercial pressures. Nonetheless, the consequence will
probably be a determined drive by Australian researchers to
push discoveries through to application and commercial endpoints.
It will be a tough road to follow, but the nation prides
itself on backing 'battlers'. Despite its small population,
Australia has a solid reputation in basic research spanning
the biomedical, physical and engineering sciences, and makes
a notable contribution to the international scientific literature
with one of the highest number of publications per
capita in the world.
However, its track record in the biotech marketplace is undeniably
weak. The lack of biotech success stories is often attributed
to a combination of poor commercial skills in the scientific
sector and scant interest from the private investment sector.
The level of R&D investment trails below the average for
countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD), and the biggest challenge seems to be
attracting investors, both domestically and abroad.
But the tide seems to be changing, and this inspired us to
produce this supplement to coincide with BIO 2004, the annual
convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization and
one of the world's largest biotech meetings. In these pages,
a team of science and business journalists profiles core areas
where Australia has notable potential because of strong research
and unique resources.
For a continent that has long lived off the sheep's back,
it is fitting that one of the areas where Australia is likely
to see considerable biotech growth is in agriculture, in particular
crop enhancement. This sector has enjoyed a long and sustained
public investment and the returns are starting to flow in
the form of strong research prominence and near-term commercial
applications. Growing environmental pressures have also seeded
investment into land-management technologies.
More recently, there have been speculative forays in the
discovery of natural products, harvesting the fruits of unique
ecosystems to generate novel drug leads. And, although Australia's
medical biotechnology sector has a comparatively modest standing
internationally, early signs indicate that it is learning
how to garner sufficient support to take discoveries through
the development pipeline to clinical trials.
Finally, being on the doorstep of Asia places Australia in
a strategic position for joint ventures and for attracting
investment from some of the most rapidly growing economies.
There are already well-established educational, political
and economic ties between Australia and its regional neighbours.
Science offers a bridge between vibrant emerging biotechnology
We are grateful for the support of our advertisers, who made
it feasible for us to showcase some of the leading talent
in Australia's biotechnology industry. Nature carries
sole responsibility for all editorial content.
|| Harvesting biotechnology 1
CARINA DENNIS AND NIALL BYRNE
|| Biotech business Down Under 5
The Australian biotechnology industry
is itching to grow up. Despite decades of world-class
discoveries in science, it is a young industry by world
standards, and is just starting to find its commercial
feet. Charles Beckley reports.
|| Farmers to pharmas 10
Is the future of agriculture in
biopharming, an industry that uses modified crops to grow
pharmaceuticals or foods with enhanced health benefits?
Brad Collis investigates how the Australian industry is
carving out a niche for itself.
|| Biodiscovery from reef to
Biotech companies are exploring
Australia's unique ecosystems in search of novel compounds
for the next generation of pharmaceuticals and chemical
agents. David Blake profiles the companies built on Australia's
|| Gaining medical momentum 19
Biomedical research in Australia
may have chalked up some successes, but it has also let
some money-spinning ideas slip through its fingers. Having
learned its lesson, this nascent industry is now beginning
to flex its muscles. David Blake reports.
|| Future outlook 25
When Australian biotechnologists
sit down to discuss the future of their industry, size
is inevitably on the agenda. Australia may be a large
country, but its population is just half the size of that
of California. Niall Byrne looks at how Australia's small
companies could assert themselves, despite being the underdogs.