Biotech Culture

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More than a Biotechnology blog, by Elena F. Guiral

Your dream counselor in Life Sciences & co

28 November 2012

Karen R. Peterson, Director of Scientific Career Development Office and Scientific Ombudsman

Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center (Seattle, WA)

Elena Fernandez

Although Karen R. Petersen, Director of Scientific Career Development Office was graduated in Genetics in U.C. Berkeley, she preferred developing her professional career in the Pacific Northwest. “When you do  hiking in California is always crowded”, she jokes.

She began her postdoctoral fellowship research in Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 1995 and she knew from the beginning she wanted to be tied to this center for a long time. “I´m deeply in love with this place”, but she was more interested in managing people than doing scientific research, so she moved to administration department as soon as she found a good opportunity.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was founded in 1975 by surgery William Hutchinson in honour to his brother Fred, a famous baseball player who died from this disease in 1964. The first succesfull bone marrow transplant was conducted here in 1980. Today three Nobel laureates and more than 2.700 faculty and staff members keep on working to eliminate cancer HIV and other related diseases.

That´s precisely why Karen is happy working for non profit sector. She feels that she has a large mission here, and she works with people who has a great mission too. “I´m not excited at all about profit widgets as sales results or staff like that”.

On the other hand, this job is more academia than industry, so as she is professional and mother has enough flexibility to work on her life-balance status.

When did she begin to work for development career issues? “I started sending info about fellowships, grants and professional opportunities to my colleagues, and they get used to come to me for advice”. After a while, the Office of Scientific Career Development was created.

Her influential role has been so relevant that in 2010 Nature,one of the world most prestigious scientific magazines, proposed her to write a guide for Life Science Careers.

Karen usually dealt with conflict issues from her office, so when the previous Scientific Ombudsman retired she assumed this role too, due to the economic downturn.

Nowadays Karen leads these too roles every day. An ombudsman, figure created in Sweden, is a kind of counselor that offer advice and helps to find solutions in every kind of conflict. The causes or a conflict are not pretty different but we are all unique and depending on our core values the development could be more or less longer.

“This is the most important challenge of my job. Time management, because I need to follow some issues further long in time and sometimes I need to stop other duties for one, two or three days. After that, I´ve lost track about other different things”, explains Karen. Most conflictive months are after summer vacations and from winter to spring. “Maybe is the lack of sun”, she smiles.

Karen has no regular communication with Board Members. “Senior leaders do this job”, but I work really close with my senior leaders every day. She belongs to Giddens School Board Members, so she understands the occasional difficulties. “Every board member has the interest of the institution in his heart, but there are different passions and different points of view. Then, the conflict begins”.

Luckily, recession has not seriously affected FHCRC as big part of the funding comes from Institute of Health so no huge damaged was done to staff. “Luckily since 2009 interest in philanthropy has grown in our state, but It´s true that getting money is harder every year and we need to be really focused in our priorities”, says Karen.

For this non profit leader, her institution has a key role to play in WA state as an independent institute in healthcare research area, although she doesn´t consider it a NGO. “We act as incubators of technology for future spin off companies, so we have a positive impact in terms of job creation”.

Besides, as there is more old money in the East Coast dedicated to philanthropy, here is more young money that wants to be involved and to know how is going to be the impact of it in the community.

On the other hand, as Biotechnology in Seattle occupies a second tier in all country sector, most of the companies are small  or medium sized. “When a company grows the investors want to move it to more active cities as San Diego, San Francisco or Los Angeles, so we don´t have great anchor companies, as Microsoft or Amazon, who helps us to develop non profits in Health sector”, concludes Karen.

The sunny side of Washington is… agrobiotech

20 November 2012

Elena F. Guiral

For most mortals Seattle and Washington state are synonymous with coffee, grunge, Nirvana, Eclipse … and rain. But few know that this state also has a sunny farming face on the other side of the Cascades.
300 days of sunshine a year, hot summers, the same latitude as the most prestigious French wine regions and abundant water from the Columbia River… An agricultural paradise awaits us almost on the edge of the world.
Not surprisingly Washington State produces 50% of U.S. apples and is also a major producer of potatoes, along with Oregon and Idaho. And here is where our main character enters the scene today:  Zhang Linhai, researcher & USDA-ARS Washington State University, currently based in Prosser.
Linhai was born in China but has spent his entire academic and professional career in the U.S., even without losing his roots. In fact, this scientist is associate professor in the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agriculture, therefore he straddles between the two major agrobiotechnology countries all around the world.
Although his work has developed a research on various crops, potato is the one who has professionally stolen his heart  for over a decade. He currently works in disease research, specifically with the root-knot nematode, Meloidogyne chitwood, present in the Columbia River Basin in Washington and Oregon.
Gall nematodes are small generally found in the balloon-shaped roots, and attack the roots of the plant causing a decreased absorption of water and minerals.

Root-knot nematodes attack tubers and cause blemishes making tubers unmarketable for fresh markets and reducing processing quality for chips and fries.  Some foreign markets do not allow nematodes in potato for processing.  If certain percentage of potato crop from a field are infected, the entire production will be rejected.
Traditionally this disease has been treated with chemical nematicides, but environmental and health risk may stop in the near future their use by authorities. An alternative is crop rotation, but it is difficult to find profitable and alternative crops apart from potatoes.

In their search for solutions to this disease, Linhai works with both traditional breeding techniques such as and molecular following the process of their work from the laboratory to the field. Nowadays, he is also developing projects to improve the nutritional value of the potato and increasing its anti oxidant content.
Linhai´s research projects results, which take place in collaboration with Washington State University, are available to public and private entities, but especially benefit small and medium companies that don´t have the ability to develop their  R + D + I independently.

But Linhai works in one of the greenest and more environment protective states of America, so I was curious to know if their work has been affected by activist campaigns. “No way, our researcha live in harmony with potatoes for processing organic potato varieties such as colored potato, a variety of purple one” This potatoes, a bit smaller than regular ones,  are commonly found in farmers markets, loved by local people.
This tubercula coexistence is an small-scale example in a country in which over 80% of soybeans and corn are genetically modified, but from a country with an strong alternative organic food market, with retailers such as Whole Foods as the best example.

In recent times there have been some voices calling for the labeling of all foods produced from genetically modified seed, something that this researcher agrees. “It is a consumer law and must be respected.”
But as clear as that coexistence is possible, is his assurance that agricultural biotechnology has undeniable benefits. “XXI Century challenges are truly complicated, we need to conserve our natural resources as good as possible, so the new technologies play a key role in this challenge. ”

The long denialist shadow

23 May 2012

Elena F. Guiral

Denialism, how irrational thinking harms the planet and threatens our lives, by Michael Specter, came to me through a curious way, a an anti GMO myths contest prize organized by http://www.biofortified.org/ a Biotech blog I highly recommend.

In his book Michael Specter, science journalist for The New Yorker, defines and identifies the kind increasingly denialist known as “all who see the progress of science as a war against nature.” According to Specter, the denialistas are not the less educated. This is not a problem of ignorance, but of attitude. They find it too hard to admit the speed at the progress advances and prefer to stay in the comfortable lie that things should continue as they are. If the facts do not fit their preconceived ideas about a topic, just ignore them.

Specter’s hypothesis fits 100% with the rejection of a certain sector of the population to GM foods, and the anti vaccines campaign that have gained some importance especially in the U.S. in recent years. They think they are doing the right thing fighting against the scientific progress and they seek the necessary arguments out of context or without unproven reliability.

However, the arguments and techniques useful yesterday are useless today. Related to this Specter quotes Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution in his chapter on biotechnology: “Combine population growth with high levels of poverty, do not give them access to technological advances and the result will be starvation and death “.

However, it is complex to show to the general public who buys at Whole Foods, the American giant of organic food, the equation artisanal / traditional is the best it´s not correct. Science and progress have risen life expectancy in the U.S. nearly double and Europe compared to the nineteenth century. That progress is not possible without risks and trial and error. However, taking into account that change is hard to accept, and especially hard the change that occurs for no apparent reason is the task of scientists and journalists to respect the fears and doubts of the public and give honest answers to them.

Otherwise, science will be allying with denialism. However, the train of science and development will continue their journey, faster in some countries than in others … because as Michael Specter concludes: “The progress offers hope and there is nothing more overwhelming than hope.”

GM cereal killers, Take the flour back, in concert

18 May 2012

Elena F. Guiral

They are called Take the flour back. This friendly so hippy group have decided to organize a day in the countryside next May 27. There will be picnic, music with the famous group Seize the day and star activity: decontamination.
Decontamination. Destruction of a field trial of genetically modified wheat designed to repel attacks by aphids and black flies. Destruction of the work of several years of a group of researchers at England Rothamsted Inistitute. Of course, all of this in a festive atmosphere.
As this group likes to act openly they have announced their little party on his own website and they are so nice and friendly that we are all invited to participate. In the final analysis, decontaminating alone would be a little boring. Of course there is a complete press pack too, because they need to show their heroic action to the world.
We now turn our heads to the other protagonists of history, our involuntary party hosts. Obviously, I refer to Rothamsted Institute researchers, now famous thanks to this environmental group.
Finally, in an attempt to stop the destruction of these tests several of the researchers working on this project have published an open letter and edited a video widely circulated on the Internet in recent days.
I agree, So far, with the laudable attitude of Rochamsted Institute scientists trying to save their essays. But what about that slaughtered lamb face asking for clemency to the cereal killers? And that scenario behind the table as if they were Al Queda hostages?
And I wonder, Why ask for clemency to a group of lunatics, fanatics, denialistas? Why insist on trying to change their opinion on GMOs when we all know, years and years later it ´s a hopeless task? Because they always look for new arguments, no matter how unscientific they may be, to reinforce their prejudices. And that nobody is going to change their minds.
And that’s why at this point I’ll forget Take the flour back to focus on the mistakes that I believe have committed Rothamsted Institute researchers.

Error 1. Trying to persuade a group of eco-violent fundamentalists to understand and respect all their research field trials work.
Error 2. Failure to report their intentions to the security forces to protect this trial. Begging your enemies is taking away your reason and authority. My message would had been this: “You want dialogue, perfect for us, but be clear that if you destroy our tests you will be doing something illegal and you will have to answer to the law.”
Take the Flour Back want to show and launch their message to the public packed and ready to eat. That they have refused to participate in a live debate with scientists and have proposed to them to participate in a TV program. Their arguments would not hold a first round or dialectical struggle …
Error 3. Standing out from the multinationals, commenting that the trials were public and if they were destroyed environmentalists would be leaving the way open only for agrochemical industry to continue developing and commercializing GMOs. First of all, because going against the legitimate work of seed companies in the agro biotech field thinking is useless to gain respect from cereal killers & co. and instead it increases uncertainty on public opinion.
Maybe it’s time for molecular biologists to stop apologizing every day for working on GM plants. Maybe It´s time for them to focus their energy to their research and to inform about the applications of biotechnology in the best way possible. And because so many explanations, justifications and calls for clemency to groups denialists lunatics -only is a waste of time and energy and would lead the public to wonder: Why all the defensiveness? And as Gandalf said in The Lord of the Rings: “Do not pity them, because they wouldn´t pity you”.

The unknown Edison´s botanical side

12 April 2012

Elena F. Guiral

Prolific inventor, tireless worker great man, Thomas Alva Edison, who changed the course of Humanity in 1879 with the invention of electric bulb, still holds the Guinness record of patents: 1090.

This is the story of a researcher whose fortune would have permitted him to retire much earlier, but he continued to work in his laboratory until his death in 1931. This is the story of a man who believed that every error was not wasted time, but a step towards the ultimate goal. For him, a failure was not a failure, “just 10,000 tests that have not worked.”
It is well known that Edison patented inventions as relevant to the history of mankind as the bulb, the phonograph and the kinetoscope, but few know of his love of botany. We discover it strolling through the magnificent gardens of his winter home in Fort Myers (Florida), where he took refuge in the long winters of New Jersey and practiced his favorite hobbies: fishing, gardening and … their little naps.
From this greener side and his friendship with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone he founded his last project and one of the most ambitious, the Edison Botanic Research Corporation, in 1927.
During World War I the price of rubber increased dramatically and Ford and Firestone were really concerned about this issue. They planned to find an alternative source of rubber through a houseplant that could be useful in times of war and crisis.
Florida, with its subtropical climate, was the perfect place for the project, so in 1928, Edison built a new laboratory next to his home in Fort Myers. The researcher created a network of experts and interest sought to plant varieties in the United States, Puerto Rico and Cuba. After testing 17.000 samples of 2.200 different species that were planted near his laboratory, Edison found the perfect plant:  Goldenrod. Edison managed to produce a plant height of 12 feet (3.7 meters) containing 12% rubber and got his last patent, 1090. In fact, the tires on his Ford T were made with rubber extracted from Goldenrod.

 

How was made the extraction of rubber?
The process began outside the laboratory, in field trials that had grown with Goldenrod. Once the plants had dried were crushed and sent to the chemical laboratory, where their properties were studied and distilled to extract latex. Edison, also pioneer in practicing green chemistry, purified and recycled all the solvents used. Edison also contributed with his work to the creation testimony Plant Patent Act, passed in 1930 to regulate commercial patents on the development of hybrid plants.
Unfortunately, Edison died in October 1931 when the project was in full swing. After the death of the investigator the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), moved it to Savannah (Georgia), with an assigned budget of $ 80 million. Without Edison, and due to the economic recession and the increased use of synthetic rubber, the project languished until was finished in 1936. “We found evidence in the laboratory of Fort Myers that Edison was about to produce latex from Goldenrod. Who knows how far this project  could get if Edison had not died, “says Alison Giesen, director of the Department of Conservation Edison & Ford Winter Estates Museum.

Alison Giesen has played a key role in restoring the Edison laboratory in Fort Myers, that after three years of work, can be admired by the public since last February. The biggest challenge? “Maintaining historical accuracy as possible when placing and interpreting all objects in the laboratory.” This had the photographic archive of Edison addition to the advice of engineers and industrial chemicals.
“In my opinion, Edison would be very proud of his legacy today. And I also feel proud to have participated in this project that will inspire new generations, “says Alison Giesen. As he said in one of his most famous quotes: “There is always a better way of doing things. Find it. ”

 

Bioeconomy in Europe: a reasoned and reasonable management of natural resources

5 April 2012

Elena F. Guiral

Last week the European Commission published its roadmap on what it sees as the cornerstone of EU development over the next decade. By this strategy, called sustainable bioeconomy, Innovating for Sustainable Growth: a Bioeconomy for Europe, will target all community decisions in the future.

But what is the sustainable bioeconomy? The European Commission defines this concept as “the best economic management of biological resources and their transformation into industrial processes and waste management.”

This strategy fits perfectly in biotech pattern, as an industry based on natural resources and that offers multiple solutions to get the best out. Furthermore, biotechnology is one of the keys to the transformation of an economy based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable energy.

The bioeconomy looking to develop around three pillars:

1) Increasing investment in research and innovation through EU funds, national and strengthen ties and synergies with private investment.

2) Making the most, economical and sustainable, waste management. Currently, getting rid of organic waste costs the taxpayer between 55 and 90 euros per tonne. The Commission proposal aims to turn the tables and make expenditures for the benefit, through technologies such as biomass that could create jobs and economic wealth. And give a greater dependence on Europe, too, nowadays tied to fossil fuels.

3) Stretching the coordination of this strategy through the creation of a Panel and a Bioeconom Observatory and conferences and other activities between the actors involved.

The term bio-economy, which now takes up and develops the EU is not new. Member States like Denmark, Finland, Germany and Holland are already developing similar strategies.

On the other hand, this strategy also aims to bring about a change of consciousness and consumption habits of European citizens. A real challenge, because the projected growth of 70% of the food demand of the world population in 2050 remain in mere numbers on paper when access to varied and reasonably priced food remains guaranteed.

However, this strategy presented last week in Brussels, has raised questions and some skepticism among researchers.

Although Europa Bio, the European Association of Biotechnology Enterprises has embraced this project, “This is a very important milestone for Europe and Europeans,” said Lars Hansen, Director of the Board of Industrial Biotechnology Association.

Meanwhile, Nathalie Moll  Secretary General of Europa Bio has shared her point of view with Cultura Biotec: “The strategy of the bioeconomy is a good start, but should be implemented at national and community level and requires a series of complementary measures as the limit to assure the production of biomass, in addition to an appropriate legal development”.

The most striking contradiction is why if it is a clear need to manage the most optimal way our agricultural resources, to achieve maximum sustainable productivity, development of agricultural biotechnology in the EU remains paralyzed more than a decade later.

On the other hand, the crystallization of such an ambitious project would be a great achievement for the development of the EU economy in the coming years. But you must wait to see if this strategy will remain in the third point of the vital pillars, developed only in theory, or actually we all see real and positive results in short and medium term.

ISAAA GM report 2011: carnival goes on… but far away

5 April 2012

Elena F. Guiral

Economy suffering all around the world… and carnival goes on. While Europe is still wrapped in the blanket from his indolence and seeing the reality that comes up in a “telenovela” format. These so-called emerging countries are giving Europe a lesson in Biotechnology management.

From the 160 million hectares planted with genetically modified seeds in 2011, representing an overall growth of 8%, the highest growth belonged again to Brazil, with an impressive 20% increase.

The former pupil is about to become a teacher, and nowadays it is the second largest producer in the world with 30.3 million hectares cultivated last year. U.S. remains as the giant biotech crop producer, with 69 million hectares planted in 2011. Today 90% of the country’s major crops: soybeans, corn, cotton and sugar beets, are genetically modified.

Clive James, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of agri-biotech applications (ISAAA) in its report reveals the secrets of Brazilian miracle: “Brazil has a really fast approval system and has created two streams of technology to support GMOs growth: crops developed by agrobiotechnology companies and collaboration between public and private institutions through
EMBRAPA, which has an annual budget of one billion $”.

The result of this collaboration is the first transgenic crop developed in Brazil will triumph, a resistant virus bean. According to James, “this winning approach is a key lesson for other countries around the world.”

A good lesson for visionaries like Bill Gates, who through his foundation has established an ambitious partnership with EMBRAPA, budgeted at 2.5 million $, to develop their knowledge shares in African countries in which Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has running projects.

An invisible experience for european blind eyes, where the legal and bureaucratic
blockade has led BASF to moving their research laboratories from Germany to Raleigh
(North Carolina).

However, and from the back door, European Union funds support research projects in Costa
Rica. So Europe has deeply failed in 3D strategy defined by Clive James as the art of “developing R & D & I rationally, deregulate and diversify new applications”.

Europe experienced an increase of 26% in GMOs cultivated hectares with 114,500 hectares, mainly grown in Spain, which keeps on holding 85% of the total percentage. Only Portugal, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Romania today grown GM seeds commercially. And it seems it will not change much the picture in coming seasons, because Monsanto has just announced that won´t sell MON 810 in France.

In terms of in future promises, or rather present promises, ISAAA report points to India and China. India has already spent a decade cultivating Bt cotton, a milestone that has made this crop in the most productive and profitable in the country. In China, 3.9 million Bt cotton hectares were cultivated in 2011 mainly by small farmers and on a percentage of 71.5% of the total cultivated cotton. And this country is also attentive to the Bt corn, which will provide feed for a growing population demanding more insistently animal products, and the commercialization of Golden Rice in the Philippines in 2013.

It´s not by chance that countries with more potential in the near agrobiotech future, are economic threats to Europe in the coming years too. For years I’ve heard from experts that the EU would lose the train of biotechnology if didn´t change its policy and its attitude. The last train passed, long ago … we are still waiting in our station, abandoned in the middle of the Wild West … until Indians decide to come an take away our blanket, our television and even our hair.