Malaysia puts biovalley under wraps

Kuala Lumpur

The Malaysian government is quietly launching a major project to harness the country's abundant natural biodiversity to create a viable biotechnology industry.

Over the next three years, it plans to invest 600 million ringgits (US$160 million) to build three research institutes, dedicated to molecular biology, plant biotechnology and drug development. Based at an 80-hectare campus in Dengkil, 45 kilometres south of Kuala Lumpur, the institutes are scheduled to open in 2006.

But in contrast to similar initiatives elsewhere, BioValley Malaysia is being set up in an atmosphere that borders on secrecy. Although Malaysian biologists welcome the initiative, most won't discuss it on the record.

Even government officials don't want to talk about the project, which was announced by Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad in May. “We want to get the project off the ground rather than talk about it,” says an official at the science ministry.

A university researcher, who didn't want to be named, says that Mahathir wants to keep the project low profile, after a comparable information-technology initiative in 1997 failed to meet its advertised goals. The government is also sensitive to charges that it is allowing private investors to exploit Malaysia's rich biodiversity.

This biodiversity distinguishes the project from other biotechnology parks, says the ministry spokesperson. Three companies have already agreed to locate themselves in the park and the government is negotiating with another 20.

Researchers are already tapping into the country's biodiversity. A collaboration between several Malaysian institutes and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, is looking at the plant tongkat ali — used in Malaysia to treat impotency.

The government hopes that the biovalley will enable firms to develop drugs locally by bioprospecting in Malaysia. But some analysts doubt whether Malaysian investors are ready to back long-term, research-intensive ventures, such as biotech companies. And researchers say that bureaucratic restrictions on their mobility, and on the efficient filing of patents, will make it difficult for a biotechnology sector to take root.

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Cyranoski, D. Malaysia puts biovalley under wraps. Nature 424, 118 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/424118b

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