Mapping the Terrain

color = "#B693B5"; Mapping the Terrain Thailand’s first National Biotechnology Policy Framework served as a roadmap for significant progress, but it had a rocky start. A look back at the Framework provides signposts to guide the way forward. By Thana Poopat and Nantiya Tangwisutijit During the past 3 decades, Thailand has increasingly prioritized biotechnology investment. From medicine to food to plastics to energy, Thailand has emerg

Thana Poopat and Nantiya Tangwisutijit
Jan 12, 2010

Mapping the Terrain

Thailand’s first National Biotechnology Policy Framework served as a roadmap for significant progress, but it had a rocky start. A look back at the Framework provides signposts to guide the way forward.

During the past 3 decades, Thailand has increasingly prioritized biotechnology investment. From medicine to food to plastics to energy, Thailand has emerged as a key player in biotechnology research and development in Asia. Well before many countries paid any attention to the role biotechnology would play in their institutions, economies, and lifestyles, Thailand realized the importance of getting organized or being left behind.

Today’s Thailand has a vast pool of trained researchers and technicians with wage rates among the most competitive in the world, a rich reservoir of untapped biodiversity resources, a legal framework supportive of creative research, and among the most generous biotechnology investment incentives of any country in the world.

Thailand’s biotechnology strategy...

During the past 3 decades, Thailand has increasingly prioritized biotechnology investment. From medicine to food to plastics to energy, Thailand has emerged as a key player in biotechnology research and development in Asia. Well before many countries paid any attention to the role biotechnology would play in their institutions, economies, and lifestyles, Thailand realized the importance of getting organized or being left behind.

Today’s Thailand has a vast pool of trained researchers and technicians with wage rates among the most competitive in the world, a rich reservoir of untapped biodiversity resources, a legal framework supportive of creative research, and among the most generous biotechnology investment incentives of any country in the world.

Thailand’s biotechnology strategy aims to make the country a global leader, but it does so with a philosophy that is inherently Thai, says Sakarindr Bhumiratana, president of Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA).

“Where possible, we emphasize research that will improve the livelihood and quality of life of our citizens across the board. That is why we’ve become a key player in infectious disease research, agricultural biotechnology to help farmers, and alternative energy from abundant biomass,” says Sakarindr. “We really do want to see the whole society benefit as we grow this segment of our economy.”

THE EARLY DAYS

When United Nations consultants traveled to Bangkok in the early 1980s searching for a location for the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the country’s scientific community was abuzz. Thailand’s status as a high-tech research hub was validated when the country was shortlisted for the new facility. But once the search committee chose India, principally because Thailand lacked a dedicated national biotechnology agency, the euphoria turned to despair.

“That was the clinching moment,” recalls Yongyuth Yuthavong, NSTDA’s senior advisor. “Top policy makers and chief scientists decided right there and then that Thailand must have its own National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.”

When it opened in 1983, the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) already had at its disposal established scientific institutions and researchers active in the basic life sciences, medicine, and agriculture.

In fact, the roots of the pioneering thalassemia research Thailand is engaged in now go back to groundbreaking work begun 2 decades before BIOTEC’s conception. In 1964, Prawase Wasi discovered the genetic mechanism of hemoglobin H disease, proving that it is related to α-thalassemia. His work was published in the British scientific journal Nature, and two genes are now known as Wasi’s α-thalassemia-1 and Wasi α-thalassemia-2.

By the early 1980s, Thai scientists had already mastered the basics of plant-cell culture technique and clonal propagation, which they applied to improving orchids and other cut flowers. Rapee Sagrik’s work on the art of hybridization in orchids helped launch Thailand’s orchid export industry, which now generates $60 million annually.

Rapee’s creative use of natural and human resources exemplified BIOTEC’s mandate to further Thailand’s economic and social development through the application of science. In its first decade, BIOTEC focused on establishing networks of experts to facilitate collaboration, while also supporting the development of laboratories at academic institutions. In the 1990s, relevant policy and regulatory frameworks were strengthened, and increased attention was paid to intellectual property management, biosafety guidelines, and public education and outreach.

While BIOTEC was getting organized during its first 2 decades, a lot of valuable research was already under way, says Yongyuth, notably the development of new crop varieties with resistance to a wide array of biotic and abiotic stresses, medical research into tropical diseases, and studies of new ways to turn biomass and agricultural byproducts into biofuels.

A VISION FOR BIOTECHNOLOGY

Leading figures in Thai biotechnology convened intermittently over 6 months in 2003 to develop the country’s first National Biotechnology Policy Framework. Spanning the years 2004–2009, the Framework included goals in six main categories: business development, agriculture, medicine, renewable energy, self-sufficient economy, and human resources. A retrospective shows that in the 5 years covered by the Framework, the country made significant strides, although there is clearly work left to be done.

Business Development
Thailand hoped to see the emergence of no less than 100 new biotechnology companies established by 2010, but it came up a bit short. Ninety new companies were established during the period covered by the Framework, bringing the country’s total to approximately 170. Many companies have taken advantage of the incentives BIOTEC has arranged through Thailand’s Board of Investment (BoI), including an 8-year exemption on corporate income tax, exemptions on machinery import duties, and deductions for energy, transportation, and facility construction fees.

“Biotechnology is classified as priority activity, which has special importance and benefits to the country,” says Ajarin Pattanapanchai, BoI’s deputy secretary general, adding that the agency pays special attention to investment in R&D in the areas of the seed industry; plant and animal improvement; biopharmaceutical agents; diagnostic kits for health, agriculture, food, and the environment; and bimolecular and bioactive compounds using microorganisms, plant cells, and animal cells.

Debate remains about whether the government has done enough for the business of biotech, but clear progress has been made. “The efforts of Thailand to foster the scientific education during the last 2 decades resulted in a new generation of young and highly talented scientists with a broad experience in natural products research and beyond,” says Frank Petersen, executive director, Natural Products Unit, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research. “Such a decisive governmental objective is an ideal situation for an industry partner to initiate sustainable capacity building in a respective country.”

NSTDA’s Sakarindr had hoped his agency’s recruiting efforts would encourage more of the industry’s multinational players to consider Thailand as the base for their regional activities, but he says the country’s unsettled political climate, with one coup and three changes in government since the Framework was launched, has often been a deterrent. “Once the (political) situation improves, things could take a turn for the better in no time,” he says. “One thing we’ve got in the pipeline is utilizing the procurement process to provide additional incentives for large international suppliers that are also willing to invest in biotechnology R&D here.”

Additional benefits are available to companies that set up operations at NSTDA’s Thailand Science Park, a high-tech campus that opened in 2002 and houses BIOTEC, three other technology agencies, and more than 60 private companies. A 120,000-square-meter second phase will be opening next year and is expected to house 200 companies.

© Frank van den Bergh

Agriculture
Employing 40 percent of the country’s workforce and generating $20 billion in export earnings, agriculture is a major target for biotechnology resources in Thailand. Under the banner “Kitchen of the World,” the Framework outlined strategies to improve output from the country’s core crops as well as to stimulate increased investment in the production and export of value-added products like mineral-enriched rice and processed fruits.

A visit to any one of the specialized rice, shrimp, cassava, or sugar research stations dotting the country would reveal that scientists have been productive fulfilling the first aim. Using gene pyramiding, researchers have created new rice varieties that are more disease resistant and flood and drought tolerant, and those products are making their way to the fields. Through nucleus breeding, efforts are now under way to keep Thailand a leader in shrimp exports by developing the world’s highest-quality black tiger shrimp. Some researchers are developing new sugar cane and cassava varieties, while others are finding ways to more efficiently extract energy from the byproducts generated when these crops are processed for their sugar and starch.

One concern, says Morakot Tanticharoen, vice president of NSTDA, is that restrictions on field testing, cultivation, and export of genetically modified organisms have been limiting Thai scientists’ progress. “Other major agricultural producers have been working with GMO crops for years,” says Morakot. “Thailand needs to join them. The door may be open for case-by-case GMO field trials, but the Biosafety Bill needs to get out of Parliament.”

New value-added products from Thai agriculture were initially slow to develop under the Framework, but recent developments in the area of bioplastics ramped things up. The 2008–2012 bioplastics road map has stimulated research on sugarcane, cassava, and corn.

“With global plastic production at 250 million tons a year, less than a million tons now come from biosources. There is a lot of room for bioplastics to grow to penetrate this market,” says Wantanee Chongkum, director of the Innovation Management Department at the National Innovation Agency. “As the world’s eighth-largest plastics manufacturer, with high agricultural productivity, we’re well positioned to fuse these two ingredients to become the center of the world’s bioplastics production.”

Medicine
Over the past decade, Thailand has become a leader in research on diseases that plague developing countries such as malaria, dengue fever, tuberculosis, HIV, and thalassemia. “It does seem to be a niche market that we now occupy,” says Komkrit Sajjaanantakul, managing director of I+MED Laboratories. “Increasingly, however, tropical diseases are being found in northern latitudes, so we may find huge markets overseas in the years to come.”

A major growth area under the Framework has been the development and production of diagnostic test kits, principally for the domestic market, fueled largely by government R&D and financial support. Thailand has the manufacturing competitiveness to grow this industry overseas, but so far there’s been little effort toward developing a medical device certification process that would give confidence to international buyers, says Komkrit.

Thailand has also emerged as a competitive location for large-scale clinical drug trials. Most recently, the world’s largest HIV vaccine clinical trials were conducted in Thailand in 2009. “As the cost for trials continues to escalate, I think we are going to be seeing a lot more companies looking to Thailand as among the most competitive locations to conduct this research,” says Sutee Yoksan, director of Mahidol University’s Center for Vaccine Development.

Surrounding all this activity is a medical care infrastructure that is among the best in Southeast Asia, attracting 1.2 million medical tourists in 2009. The National Institute of Development Administration found that the combination of treatment quality, price, and atmosphere attracts more foreign patients to Thailand than to its two regional competitors, India and Singapore.

Renewable Energy
The past 5 years have seen a huge increase in the number of biogas and ethanol plants across Thailand, which are aimed at getting the most power possible from agricultural products.

“Bioenergy has probably been among the most impacted by biotechnology under the Framework,” says energy expert Suvit Tia of King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi. “As a relatively new sector, there’s been a lot more room for science to affect change as compared to something researchers have been experimenting with for generations.”

However, care must be taken to ensure that this progress doesn’t come at too high a cost, Suvit maintains. “Like many other countries, the one issue we need to watch out for is that our alternative energy generation does not take food off our table. Assistance for the further expansion of this industry should not come at the expense of higher domestic food prices,” he says.

Self-sufficient Economy
Thailand’s rich biological diversity is a major attraction for biotechnology companies. The country is home to about 10 percent of the world’s total plant species and microorganisms, and drug makers in particular are keen to explore these resources. While still new to scientists, many of these species are quite familiar to the locals in Thailand’s rural communities, so it’s not surprising that the biotechnology framework paid special attention to sustainable development.

© Sura Nualpradid

The Framework included biodiversity protection programs to minimize the likelihood that species will disappear. It also focused on opportunities for local residents to partner in the collection and exploration of plants and to share their indigenous knowledge, creating new ways to support rural livelihoods.

In addition, the Framework called for the development of organic fertilizers specific to local areas, methods for biogas generation, and the development of new crop and aqua culture varieties to help small farmers maintain competitiveness.

“For example, in areas where there are huge quantities of agricultural waste such as rice, straw, and maize husk, certain enzymes can be used to speed up their decomposition so that they can be used as biofertilizers instead of being disposed of by burning,” says Kanyawim Kirtikara, BIOTEC’s executive director.

Human Resources
Thailand aims to become a “knowledge-based” economy. The continued growth in the scientific capabilities of its students and workforce is seen as paramount, not only for biotechnology but for technology generally, says Morakot Tanticharoen, vice president of NSTDA. The government is opening new colleges every few years, working closely with foreign scholars in overseas research institutes, and providing more scholarships to science students.

With the proliferation of graduate programs at home, fewer students need to attend foreign universities, says Uthaiwan Grudloyma, manager of BIOTEC’s Policy Studies and Biosafety Division. “We are still supporting students going abroad, but they are on the whole pursuing higher-caliber studies and more specialized research.”

“Brain drain” is a problem for Thailand, as it is for most developing countries. Many talented scientists take posts overseas, and within Thailand, researchers often migrate out of public laboratories and hospitals to the private sector, where the wages are higher. But an increasingly larger pool of scientists should help counteract the problem, says BIOTEC’s Uthaiwan. In fact, the agency supports its researchers moving to the private sector to strengthen the link between public and private entities, he says.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Despite the gains made under the Framework, many feel some of its elements were overambitious and detracted from its integrity. For example, agriculture revenues skyrocketed, propelling Thailand from 12th place to fifth among the world’s leading agricultural exporting nations in just 6 years. During the same period, hospitals and medical care in Bangkok became the most sought after in Asia.

The Framework also suffered from insufficient dedicated funding. Biotechnology programs relied mostly on the annual budgets of the relevant government agencies to achieve the Framework’s objectives. The supplemental public funds that many agencies and research institutions believed would be forthcoming did not materialize. “Some perfectly good plans become unrealistic because of limited resources available to us,” Sakarindr says.

These issues will almost certainly be discussed when the nation’s scientists convene in June to begin planning the next iteration of a national biotechnology strategy. While the work will begin with a clean slate, BIOTEC’s Uthaiwan says some of the priorities will undoubtedly remain the same.

“The big sector is agriculture. Food always comes first,” stresses Uthaiwan. “Bioenergy and the environment are also high on the agenda. The direction to go is to make the best use of our rich biodiversity for the well-being of our people and for environmental protection. We will also see a convergence of technologies around biotech for better handling of these key issues of national importance under the new framework.”

The process cannot start soon enough, say some scientists. They feel it’s time for the scientific community and policy makers to recognize the gains made under the Framework but to accept that not all of its goals may have been achievable. “Absent the Framework, we would not have come this far,” says Uthaiwan. “We’re definitely ready to embark on another planning process to take us further.”

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