Thailand's Transformational Science

color = "#000000"; Thailand’s Transformational Science China is conducting a huge experiment with biotechnology. Can the returning “sea turtles” use the massive domestic market and competitive cost base to make it a life sciences world power? Even the world power? There’s no arguing that Thailand is emerging as a world-class player in the arena of biotechnology research. Last September, the country made international headlines for host

Nantiya Tangwisutijit and Sarah Greene
Jan 12, 2010

Thailand’s Transformational Science

China is conducting a huge experiment with biotechnology. Can the returning “sea turtles” use the massive domestic market and competitive cost base to make it a life sciences world power? Even the world power?

There’s no arguing that Thailand is emerging as a world-class player in the arena of biotechnology research. Last September, the country made international headlines for hosting the world’s largest HIV vaccine trial. Based on HIV strains that commonly circulate in Thailand, the RV144 vaccine trial involved 16,000 participants and demonstrated a lowered rate of infection by 31 percent. Another milestone was reached last year when a government agency produced a local version of the H1N1 vaccine, now in trial (see “Spreading Influence,” p. 60).

The exciting news is that these aren’t random or lucky outcomes, but results based on strategic planning. The best and brightest of Thailand’s biotechnology community established the National Biotechnology...

There’s no arguing that Thailand is emerging as a world-class player in the arena of biotechnology research. Last September, the country made international headlines for hosting the world’s largest HIV vaccine trial. Based on HIV strains that commonly circulate in Thailand, the RV144 vaccine trial involved 16,000 participants and demonstrated a lowered rate of infection by 31 percent. Another milestone was reached last year when a government agency produced a local version of the H1N1 vaccine, now in trial (see “Spreading Influence,” p. 60).

The exciting news is that these aren’t random or lucky outcomes, but results based on strategic planning. The best and brightest of Thailand’s biotechnology community established the National Biotechnology Policy Framework in 2003, covering business development, agriculture, medicine, renewable energy, a self-sufficient economy, and human resources. The success of the Framework depended on supporting a young generation of professionals (see “Mapping the Terrain,” p. 12). Remarkably, it worked: now Thailand is a leading research center for diseases that plague developing countries—e.g., malaria, dengue fever, tuberculosis, HIV, and thalassemia.

Not to mention strides in agriculture and fisheries (see “The Future of Farms,” p. 28). For example, a young biologist recently employed microarray technology to develop a more disease-resistant and faster-growing black tiger shrimp—an export vital to the Thai economy. And not only the latest biotech has put Thailand on the map, but also old-fashioned grassroots experimentation. Using tools no more sophisticated than a needle, scissors, and paper, a local farmer developed a blast-resistant rice strain that has seen widespread use throughout the countryside.

As might be expected, there have been missteps along the way. “Leakage” of genetically modified papaya created a firestorm of public protest and threatened the nation’s food supply, public health, and the future of scientific research in Thailand. The government initially responded with denial and attempts to manipulate the truth. However, with legislation currently pending, strict controls and oversight will likely be implemented to reassure the public and give scientists the tools they need to move on to the next generation of R&D.

This episode and other politically charged incidents have challenged this newly robust industrial nation and highlight the importance of environmental concerns. Sustainable energy and the protection of Thailand’s biodiversity are perhaps the two most critical issues. As climate change threatens the fragile countryside, scientists are hard at work trying to lessen its impact (see “Biotechnology in the Era of Climate Change,” p. 78). Changing weather patterns, water shortages, and the shift from a predominantly agrarian society have all contributed to the disruption of an ecosystem. However, scientists are trying to understand these changes to devise new ways of reducing fossil fuel consumption and the resulting CO2 emissions.

One such preventive measure has been strict laws against deforestation. While this has been a boon to the surviving wildlife, it left over 4,000 elephants that had worked in the lumber industry homeless and unemployed. This spurred the founding of the Thai Elephant Orchestra by Richard Lair and performer/composer Dave Sulzer, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. And conceptual artists Komar & Melamid founded the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project. Three of their most talented prodigy – Japati, Prathida, and Look Gob – are featured in these pages.

We acknowledge and thank the many sponsors of this supplement, without whose support this publication would not have been possible.

Nantiya Tangwisutijit - Supplement Editor
Sarah Greene - Editor-in-Chief, The Scientist

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