Source: Department of Science and Technology
Title: SA: Mangena: Bio-08 Conference
Closing remarks by the Minister of Science and Technology, The Honourable Mosibudi Mangena, at the BIO-08 Conference, Grahamstown
Distinguished guests and delegates
Ladies and gentlemen
I am most privileged to have the opportunity to close what has by all accounts been a resoundingly successful Bio-08 Conference here in Grahamstown. I am certain that all the visitors at this important conference will have found South Africa to be one of the most beautiful and hospitable places in the world.
You will in no doubt have gleaned from your deliberations and determinations that the science system in our country, led by the Department of Science and Technology, is in the midst of a very challenging, exciting phase of development. We are at the forefront of South Africa's transformation into a knowledge based economy, in which economic growth is led by the production and dissemination of knowledge for the enrichment of all fields of human endeavour.
One of the foremost preoccupations of the South African Department of Science and Technology at this juncture, and one which we no doubt share with several other countries in the developing world, is what we characterise in our Ten-Year Plan for Innovation as the "farmer to pharma" challenge (one with an "f", one with a "ph"). At the outset then, I would like to turn our attention to this.
Distinguished guests, our rapidly expanding understanding of living systems has catapulted the globe into the biotechnology era. Our growing knowledge of genes and their functions, the functions of their primary or secondary products, and the complex holistic system of interactions and feedbacks that is a feature of all life, has fuelled humankind's ability to exploit living systems to create useful goods and services. This exploitation of living things, although an ancient practice for example the use of yeast in the manufacture of beer, wine and bread is currently in an exponential phase of growth, catapulted forward by the Watson and Crick discovery of the DNA double helix. As our understanding deepens and our technologies improve, so our ability to harness the potential of living systems to manufacture, modify, improve, and create new products expands.
This potential is extraordinarily powerful and wide ranging, and our ability to manipulate it can impact on practically all human endeavours. This includes the design, manufacture and use of enzymes to catalyse industrial chemical reactions almost invariably in a manner that is less polluting or more energy efficient than the more traditional manufacturing processes. It also includes the rational design of drugs to interact with unique specificity to targets within small groupings of people, or individuals. Then there is the use of living organisms to manufacture products, products that are specially adapted to life because they are manufactured by life and the designed improvement of production systems.
Although the potential is currently vast, biotechnology is already credited with a significant proportion of pharmaceutical production, crop improvements and industrial efficiencies. It is recognised that biotechnology is still in its infancy. I am certain that this gathering has already recognised that, in order for South Africa to use living systems to improve human health, animal health, to more firmly establish our food security, to create jobs, to produce energy, and to protect our environment, and to improve our quality of life, we need to invest significantly in biotechnology. This requires not only developing and supporting the system to promote innovation, but also an investment in the fundamental research and development that can lead to new breakthroughs.
In this regard, I would like to touch briefly on some of the major initiatives underway. The South African National Biotechnology Strategy (SANBS), approved by Cabinet in 2001, paved the way for an innovation system to exploit biotechnology. The Strategy essentially outlines opportunities for multiple socio-economic returns through the country's strategic investment in the biotechnology capacities required to build a globally competitive bioeconomy that can provide solutions to local and regional challenges such as malaria, HIV/Aids, food security and employment.
We cannot overstate the critical importance of this strategy. Through the strategy, for instance, six instruments have been established to drive the development of biotechnology in the country. These are the three regional biotechnology innovation centres (BioPAD, Cape Biotech and LIFElab), a National Plant Biotechnology Innovation Centre (called PlantBio), a technology platform (the National Bioinformatics Network), and a Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme.
The innovation centres act as nuclei for the development of biotechnology platforms throughout the country, and through these and the innovation support offered by the centres, a series of springboards have been created for the growth of start up companies, and the delivery of biotechnology products into the market. Furthermore, the biotechnology platforms provide a solid research and human capital base for both academics and entrepreneurs.
The roll out and implementation of these centres has proven to be a success story. Based regionally to enhance the immediacy of support and to focus on regional strengths and opportunities, the centres have, during the first four years of their existence, invested considerably in creating the appropriate innovation support infrastructure and systems, and developing the biotech sector in South Africa. Needless to say, placing such importance on our biotechnology has meant concomitant investment in the industry. Here, then, are some of our key activities and areas of investment:
* A biosafety platform is being developed by PlantBio, the objective being to grow and coordinate the skills necessary to assess risks and to ensure the biosafety of new or modified biological entities.
* The Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research, under Cape Biotech, is a regional platform that not only serves the academic community, but also incubates projects to generate intellectual property and facilitate the spin-out of biotech start-up companies.
* Also supported by Cape Biotech is Kapa Biosystems, a platform to facilitate the discovery and optimisation of novel protein products and to enable bioprospecting.
* LIFElab's Institute of Diagnostic Research is a diagnostic test platform for the manufacture of affordable and rapid diagnostic tests to detect the presence of infectious diseases.
* The LIFElab Umbogintwini Bioprocessing Platform, also known as the Umbogintwini Incubator, is for the incubation and commercialisation of biotechnology projects and ventures in the cultivation of mammalian, insect, bacterial, fungal and plant cells, as well as downstream processing equipment for the purification of biological compounds.
* The KwaZulu-Natal Drug Discovery Platform is for identifying and accessing modern technologies from other countries to develop new drugs for HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases.
* Umbogintwini Biotech Park provides the infrastructure to support biotechnology start-ups by nurturing their growth during the first few years.
* The African Clinical Research Organisation creates a pathway to commercialisation for human health products, which will substantially reduce the costs of clinical trials.
* Pre-clinical drug development expertise in South Africa is being developed to enhance the potential of the country in developing new therapeutics.
* A metagenomics initiative is to tap into the unique genetic material in South African extreme biomes, and to discover new genes and their products by applying the most modern genetic and microbiological technologies.
* In the field of metabolomics, South Africa is working on the establishment of a robust diagnostic and metabolite screening system using biomarkers.
* A drug delivery project is intended to identify novel rate modulated delivery systems for different drugs.
* The national "Omics" platform aims to build capacity in South Africa in all the biological disciplines ending in the suffix "Omics" (like genomics or proteomics) and to create an open infrastructure and environment for intellectual property generation. A major part of this platform is about integration of essential components for doing high throughput biology, wet lab research and bioinformatics. Another key focus is ensuring that South Africa has adequate access to the technologies necessary for globally competitive research.
* The Functional-Genomic Information Management System (FGIMS) is an open source system that is being developed for functional genomics research data, which has been designed using a modular approach, enabling advanced future flexibility and extensibility. The System will consist of a core module and analysis modules for different data types, which will include general, sequence, microarray, genotyping, and structural and comparative genomics/phylogenetics data.
* Structural biology: The aim is to create a structural biology programme in SA in the next few years. South Africa lacks significant structural biology capability, both expertise and infrastructure. Ultimately the ability to model and visualise molecular structures will enable rational drug design.
* Indigenous knowledge systems: There is no organised and accessible pipeline for drug discovery or bioprospecting from the starting point of natural products and herbal medicines to the level of animal and human trials that will provide the data required for successful applications for clinical trials. We need to tap in to our indigenous knowledge systems and wealth of biodiversity to achieve this.
* Research chairs: Through the Research Chairs Programme, it is expected that the necessary human capital development in strategic areas of biotechnology will be developed. These strategic areas have been identified in line with both the National Biotechnology Strategy (NBS) objectives and the subsequent Draft Emerging Roadmap Audit.
* Bioentrepreneurship programme: Cape Biotech will be launching a programme to assist scientists develop entrepreneurial skills.
In addition, South Africa has also recently had the honour of being made host of a component of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in Cape Town, which was launched by the South Africa President on 10 September 2007. Among other benefits, hosting the multimillion rand ICGEB component provides the country's researchers with access to a world class research laboratory in order to conduct health related research, as well as participation in projects that are aimed at the sustainable application of biotechnology in agriculture.
This has added to South Africa's growing profile as a preferred destination for global science and technology initiatives, and will assist in consolidating our country's role as a major international biotechnology hub in Africa. However, this responsibility naturally comes with its own challenges, which we are working on. We need to:
* create a significant biotechnology venture capital industry in South Africa
* make an increased investment in biotechnology infrastructure (technology platforms and innovation systems)
* invest in fundamental life science research, from which innovative biotechnology ideas can be developed
* promote South African biotechnology achievements, products, and opportunities internationally
* develop and coordinate the skills of bio-entrepreneurs
* co-ordinate the national interest and combined efficiencies in the regional innovation centres
* align interdepartmental policies and initiatives to enhance the environment enabling biotechnology
* achieve a "critical mass" in the biotechnology industry sector that will allow it to work with government to map a competitive advantage for SA biotechnology.
I am nevertheless certain that this conference has helped us move significantly closer to finding sustainable solutions to these and other challenges faced by the biotechnology industry. It has been an honour to host the Bio-08 Conference in South Africa, and I would like to wish all our delegates, representatives and guests a safe trip home.
Issued by: Ministry of Science and Technology
25 January 2008