Three years ago, at the 3rd Plant-Based Vaccines & Antibodies meeting in Verona , I proposed what I thought was a novel idea to move the field of “pharming” forward. With Andres Wigdorovitz from Buenos Aires in Argentina, I suggested that companies in the USA and Europe could advance their recombinant plant-produced biologicals product development very significantly by investing in research groups in countries like Argentina and South Africa, where the science was essentially on par with northern countries, but personnel and facilities cost far less. Moreover, the regulatory and ethical frameworks are often as sophisticated as those of developed countries, and according to the most recent annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA), in fact developing countries are among the leading proponents of the use of GM plants.
Seriously: of the ten countries growing more than 1 million hectares of GM crops in 2011, seven are developing nations – and six of the ten are in the Americas, with Brazil second to the USA, followed by Argentina, India and Canada. South Africa comes in ninth, ahead of Australia at 12.
While it is not a matter of pride that we generally get paid less than our northern counterparts, it is noteworthy that we in the less developed parts of the globe can probably get more value out of US dollar investments in research: research supplies and equipment cost only marginally more, buildings are probably far cheaper, and keeping laboratory animals is almost certainly less onerous. The increasing digitization of libraries, and preferential rates offered our libraries, means we have access to the same scientific literature as everyone else – and we can almost certainly train students to a similar level of achievement for far less, given lower costs of living in developing countries.
It is interesting, then, that The Scientist should have just published an opinion piece titled “A Big Pharma Biotech Fund”, in which Mark Kessel proposes that
“… a Biotech Fund, seeded by pharmaceutical companies, could focus on investing in early-stage drugs being developed in smaller biotechs, which could, in return, fuel Big Pharma’s need for innovative drugs. Such a fund would simultaneously solve the biotech industry’s current capital constraints and reduce the threat to Pharma’s pipeline.”
This makes sense in so many ways: Big Pharma could divest itself of significant costly infrastructure and personnel, and create a reservoir of potential products made far more cheaply than they could, that they could tap at will.
I would go one step further, however: I would suggest that Big Pharma could get even more bang for its bucks by investing in research centres in places with a sophisticated scientific work force like India, Argentina, South Africa – and if the US would let them, Cuba. They could tie up with prestigious local universities, given that small biotechs are probably thin on the ground, and earn considerable brownie points for developing local potential, as well as pipelines of potential products. Who knows, it might even be possible to reduce drug and biological costs as a result, so that they can actually be used where they were researched.
Kessel is, of course, thinking only of developed nations and almost certainly the USA in particular – however, it makes a lot of sense to expand a Big Pharma Funding Consortium project to include countries with expertise, but not a lot of research money. It would help stop the inexorable brain drain from developing to developed countries, and – given the huge scale of the potential funding resource – go a long way to leveling the playing fields in pharmaceutical and biological research.
Plus, I might get my biopharming projects funded at last, seeing as my government and its agencies seem to be in no hurry to oblige.
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