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Fact About Biotechnology

A number of biotechnology developments are having profound technical impacts on processes and products. As with new materials, these technical changes are inducing important structural changes in the economy

  • New commercial biotechnological devices and methods of diagnosis and prevention, based on monoclonal antibodies, biosensors, and gene probes, are revolutionizing the fields of health, agriculture, and environment, permitting the extension of hitherto limited physical and chemical measurements to the potential control and regulation of complex systems in the human body, in animals, plants, the environment, and in industrial processes.
  • The specificity and diversification of biotechnological products are increasing, as commodity chemicals tend to be replaced by specialty and agricultural chemicals, closer to user demands. Monoclonal antibodies can be used as ultraspecific drug vectors against specific tissue antigens, opening the way to the introduction of medicines specific to individual patients (personalized therapy). Several distinct new biotechnology products tend to compete with each other as substitutes for the same traditional product: for instance, more than eight new sweeteners compete to replace sugar.
  • Biotechnology contributes to a reduction in the intensity of the use of energy and materials: the production of chemicals through enhanced fermentation or enzymatic processes, industrial purification by monoclonal antibodies, and the replacement of sugar by new compounds with dramatically superior sweetening power may be mentioned as examples of this trend. New immunodiagnostic tests based on monoclonal antibodies and gene probes, besides being rapid, specific, and easy to use, are sensitive to smaller quantities of test material and imply a dramatic reduction in the quantities of blood, urine, cells, etc., needed. Biotechnological processes and products present the ability to use renewable energy resources and to recover reusable or marketable by-products in the processing industry, thus increasing the productivity of all energy and materials inputs through “maximum recycling” and “minimum effluents.”
  • The methodologies employed in the development of new products and processes in biotechnology rely on rigorous scientific knowledge in numerous fields, thus increasing rationality and diminishing empiricism in research and industrial production through a goal-directed and systematic understanding of the processes involved. This is for instance apparent in the radical change in the methods of pharmacological research, which has shifted from the screening of a large number of molecules to the targeting of a suitable molecule to act upon the mechanism of a specific disease. This change in the paradigm of pharmacology, made possible by new biotechnological research instruments and products, has simplified and rationalized the process of innovation and profoundly affected the pharmaceutical industry: from being a drug supplier, it is becoming an “industry of function,” i.e. a supplier of a wide range of therapeutic products, diagnostics, auxiliary materials, equipment, machines, biomedical systems, and technology. A similar evolution towards rationalization of the innovation process in industry can be expected in the agrochemical and food industries.

The bulk of biotechnology sales in terms of volume and value can be grouped in three main groups of products:

Very high value medical products used in small quantities, like vitamins (B12), antibiotics (cephalosporin), enzymes, novel biological products (interferon, tissue plasminogen activator – TPA), or monoclonal antibodies, which are extremely expensive and whose production in commercially viable quantities has only become possible with recent genetic engineering technologies.
Low value products that have to be sold in enormous quantities, usually produced by fermentation processes, and that generally compete against similar commodities produced by more traditional means, like ethanol, methane, isoglucose, and several effluent and waste treatment substances.
An intermediate group of organic chemicals, such as amino and organic acids (glutamic acid, lysine), fungal proteins used in novel foods, and bacterial cultures used as soil inoculants to protect plants from pests or to supply additional nitrogen to the roots, all of which also have to compete against other processes.

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