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Recent advances in genetic engineering and re-


Genetic engineering, also known as gene-splicing techniques and DNA recombinant technology, is based on the theory of molecular genetics, molecular biology and microbiology and modern methods as a means of genes from different sources according to pre-designed blueprint for building hybrids in vitro DNA molecules into living cells and then to change the genetic characteristics of the original biological, access to new varieties, production of new products.

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									      T H E         S C I E N T I F I C               R E V O L U T I O N               I N      A S I A

              Whither Biotechnology in Japan?
                             Why biotechnology hasn’t yet taken off

                                             BY ARTHUR KORNBERG

        ecent advances in genetic engineering and re-       science to young and old and have enabled third world

R       lated biotechnologies have already revolution-
        ized many aspects of the practices of medi-
cine and agriculture. The future promises even fur-
                                                            countries to contribute at the frontiers of science.
                                                            Biotechnology has been the conduit for transferring
                                                            knowledge from academia to business.
ther advances in the quality of human health and in               The key issues surrounding academic science and
business opportunities, perhaps more than those by          biotechnology include the direction of research, the
the vaunted and globalized information technologies.        focus and magnitude of research support, discrimi-
Yet Japan, despite its great resources in the biosciences   natory practices, global orientation, and venture capi-
and leadership in engineering, has not been in the          tal. Worldwide tradition and practice in academia has
vanguard of biotechnology and may fall even farther         entrusted the direction of research to the top offi-
behind in the coming years. I will examine here some        cials of an institution or the head of a department.
of the issues responsible for this lag by way of com-       This system of direction from the top down has op-
paring it with progress in the United States in both        erated in Europe and Japan and continues to do so.
basic bioscience research and industrial applications.      But this system does not work as well as that in the
     Biotechnology is a hybrid term. As such it may         United States in which responsibility for direction of
obscure the important distinction between biology           research is given directly to the scientists, young or
and technology. Biology in its broadest context is a        old.
basic quest for knowledge about life. Technology,                 With the conclusion of World War II, the Na-
again in broad terms, is the engineering to apply that      tional Institutes of Health (NIH) of the United States
knowledge to practical ends, commonly to obtain             started something in biomedical science research sup-
marketable, profitable products.                            port that was great and utterly unique. Competitive
     In distinguishing biology as basic science, from       applicants are judged by committees of peer scien-
technology and engineering as applied science, I do         tists from outside the government; grants are now
not intend this to be a judgment of their relative val-     given to some forty-thousand individual scientists for
ues. Both basic and applied science are absolutely          a period renewable after four to ten years. With the
essential. But they differ in their design, just as their   award of a grant, the scientist becomes his own boss.
practitioners, the scientists and engineers, differ in      Success or failure depends on what the scientist ac-
their temperaments and training. Biology and tech-          complishes. Research is thus directed from the bot-
nology are interactive and interdependent. The new          tom up. This system may be costly and inefficient in
technology provides the means to obtain new insights        that tens of thousands of applications need to be
into evolution and new views of old phenomena.              carefully and laboriously reviewed—only one in five
Novel reagents and devices have transformed basic           receive funding—as compared with the award of far
biology; sophisticated data are now acquired easily,        fewer block grants to large groups or institutions. But
quickly and cheaply. These new tools have opened            these disadvantages are mitigated because what the
                                                            bottom-up system uniquely achieves is to put the in-
ARTHUR KORNBERG is Merner Professor of Medical Science      dividual scientist in complete charge of choosing what
in Department of Biochemistry of Stanford University, and   questions to pursue and being able to make instant
Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine in 1959           changes in direction, in response to difficulties and

6   Fall 2002 – Volume 6, Number 2
novel opportunities. With that, the scientist assumes           tural science and applications as in genetically modi-
full responsibility and can commit the passion needed           fied crops.
to achieve and gain the recognition for that achieve-                 The independence of an American scientist to
ment.                                                           initiate and pursue his own research in the biomedi-
      Were the success of the NIH experiment in re-             cal sciences has sometimes been attributed to the
search support to be judged, even in so social an area          policies of American universities and institutes rather
of science, one might question whether other fac-               than to the NIH system of funding. But precisely
tors might have been responsible for the excellent              this independence has been achieved because the in-
results. In fact, such an experimental control does             dividual scientist as a grantee of the NIH is not in-
exist in the program of support of agricultural sci-            debted to a senior professor, a department head or a
ence in the United States during the same postwar               dean, nor is he prey to university politics. The uni-
period. A considerable, federally supported research            versity has no choice but to give scientists their inde-
activity continued but remained in the tight grip of            pendence in order to compete for their teaching con-
the Department of Agriculture, which retained all               tributions, the prestige of their discoveries, and for
authority within its own bureaucracy. Research pro-             the very considerable income from the indirect costs
grams were limited to the established regional labo-            attached to their grants. Yet it should be recognized
ratories among the states; there were no grants to              that the robust competition for grantees, an essential
individuals in universities or private institutes. With         ingredient of the success of the NIH granting sys-
this old-fashioned system of management, the knowl-             tem, relies on the fact that private and public univer-
edge base for agriculture remained stagnant. Little             sities are free from centralized government controls,
was learned about the basic biochemistry and genet-             something also virtually unique to the United States.
ics of plants and farm animals. Only recently, with                   After World War II, American government
the introduction of recombinant DNA technology,                 spending on basic bioscience training and research
funded largely by the NIH, has there finally been an            has increased a thousand-fold to the current NIH
awakening of interest and activity in basic agricul-            budget of US $27 billion; while support in Japan has

Women must come to play an important role if biotechnology is to thrive in Japan

                                                                                        Harvard Asia Pacific Review   7
until recently been very poor. To make matters worse,       in science and technology. Then, with the Meiji Res-
research support is generally focused on selected pro-      toration, Japan opened itself to information and ideas,
grams. Such focus may be appropriate for programs           but not to people. For Japan to assume a position of
that require development and engineering as with a          leadership in the twenty-first century, the import bal-
vaccine or a cardiovascular device. Otherwise, plans        ance of scientists must be changed drastically from
and programs generally fail. The truly great discov-        its current zero state.
eries and inventions have always been made by indi-              Like it or not, English will remain the language
vidual scientists when given the freedom and re-            of science and technology, as well as of business and
sources to be creative in unplanned directions. All         diplomacy. For facility in the spoken language, En-
the major discoveries in medicine—x-rays, magnetic          glish must be taught early and by English-speaking
resonance imaging, lasers, polio vaccine, penicillin and    teachers. What a cheap and splendid investment it
genetic engineering—came from the curiosity of              would be to attract English-speaking teachers from
physicists, chemists and biolo-                                                   the United States and Europe
gists who had no anticipation                                                     even for brief periods.
that their discoveries would be After World War II, American                           In the intensely competitive
of any practical value. The same          government spending on basic            global markets for talent, the
can be said of pioneering dis-                                                    pace of change must be aggres-
coveries in industry. Necessity bioscience training and research has sive rather than incremental.
has not been the mother of in- increased a thousand-fold . . . while Every day, attractive advertise-
vention; rather, inventions be-                                                   ments are received from Euro-
come the mother of necessities!             support in Japan has until            pean and American institutes
Only after many years have hap-               recently been very poor.            and universities seeking to re-
hazard, non-goal oriented inven-                                                  cr uit graduate student and
tions been exploited for com-                                                     postdoctoral fellows for well–
mercial purposes. To put it simply: basic research is       funded programs. These posters fill our bulletin
the lifeline of medicine; pioneering inventions are         boards. But there are none from Japan. Mechanisms
the source of industrial strength. The future is in-        need to be created and implemented to bring stu-
vented, not predicted.                                      dents, faculty and scholars to Japan from all the world
      People and especially scientists need to discrimi-    to balance the massive export of Japanese talent that
nate for quality, productivity and novelty, but not for     has come largely to the United States since World
any other reason. Rather than discrimination, affir-        War II.
mative action should be exercised to recruit women;              In the practice of biotechnology, the company,
opportunities in academic life in Japan have been           often referred to as a biotech venture, was originally
severely limited for women. With regard to age, it is       an American enterprise and is now being copied
now illegal in the United States to retire people on        worldwide. The company engages bioscientists in an
the basis of age, whereas in Japan retirement by age        entrepreneurial business they never knew before.
sixty-five is mandatory regardless of vigor and pro-        Their involvement is driven by enormous investments
ductivity. The xenophobia against foreign nationals         provided by venture capital. The motive is to make
is profound in Japan, compared to the welcome ex-           money, but the technologic developments are truly
tended in the United States and many European coun-         extraordinary. This combination of academia and
tries. Remarkably this discrimination against “others”      industry has been remarkably successful.
extends even to exchange between university facul-               There are now more than fifteen-hundred
ties—formidable barriers prevent the healthy traffic        biotech ventures in the United States In the year 2000,
of graduates and faculty among the most elite insti-        their value was US $330 billion, their annual revenues
tutions. It is essential there be free exchange and com-    were US $25 billion, and they employed two-hun-
petition between universities within Japan and with         dred thousand people and many more in related in-
those in the rest of the world.                             dustries. Recall that the discoveries of recombinant
      Science in the twenty-first century will be more      DNA, cloning, genetic engineering and related tech-
than ever global in international exchanges and com-        nologies were all made in academic laboratories. But
petition. To be more specific with Japan, three cen-        these laboratories were then, and still are, ill-equipped
turies of separation from the rest of the world left        to develop these discoveries, to bring them to the
Japan isolated and uninformed of Western progress           stage of large scale production and the ultimate mar-

8   Fall 2002 – Volume 6, Number 2
keting of useful and safe drugs                                                             coveries in academic laborato-
or devices.                                                                                 ries were advanced to the point
     The large pharmaceutical
                                            The truly great discoveries and                 where the big companies could
companies in the early 1970s inventions have always been made by take over to conduct the large-
were too rigid and bureaucratic
to clone genes and to isolate
                                         individual scientists when given the scale development and pro-
                                                                                            duction for clinical trials, to
and market their novel protein freedom and resources to be creative in obtain the regulatory approv-
products. These large protein                                                               als and carry out responsible
molecules included previously
                                                   unplanned directions.                    marketing. Biotech companies
unavailable cytokines, hor-                                                                 have been and remain an es-
mones, receptors and antibodies all with promise for               sential conduit from academia to industry.
the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. To the phar-                   Of the many biotech ventures, very few will suc-
maceutical companies at that time, proteins were                   ceed in making money. For success, many conditions
strange and utterly different from the small molecules             must each be met: first, a community of investors
that had been their business for a hundred years.                  who gamble that the venture will yield phenomenal
     For these reasons, the small biotech companies                returns, even knowing that so few will succeed; sec-
were needed to fill a major gap between discoveries                ond, an entrepreneurial CEO who has business and
in academia and the large pharmaceutical companies.                managerial acumen; third an administrative staff com-
Biotech ventures took the challenge to blend and in-               petent to deal with legal matters such as patents, part-
novate the biotechnologies. By their efforts, the dis-             nerships, acquisitions, as well as regulatory approv-
                                                                             als, and marketing; and fourth, a scientific
                                                                             staff with excellent leadership, quality and
                                                                             ample resources and time to make discov-
                                                                             eries worthy of development.
                                                                                   For these many conditions to be met,
                                                                             it is certain that no governmental agency
                                                                             can initiate and sustain a successful biotech
                                                                             venture. Recent ambitious plans by the Japa-
                                                                             nese government to create biotech ventures
                                                                             will surely fail. Yet the established scientific
                                                                             and engineering resources in Japan are enor-
                                                                             mous: world-leading biotechnology in the
                                                                             fermentation industry firmly in place even
                                                                             in the 1950s, flourishing chemical and phar-
                                                                             maceutical industries, and extraordinary
                                                                             success in the development and marketing
                                                                             of automotive, electronic and other con-
                                                                             sumer products. Most precious of all, the
                                                                             large labor force in Japan is highly educated,
                                                                             skilled and motivated.
                                                                                   Japan needs to overcome the cultural
                                                                             traditions that deprive the individual scien-
                                                                             tist of the direction of research and dictate
                                                                             the focus of research. It needs to increase
                                                                             the investment in basic science and remove
                                                                             discrimination based on gender, age and
                                                                             ethnicity. Were Japan to lower these cultural
                                                                             barriers, adopt a more global orientation
                                                                             and encourage the entrepreneurial zeal of
                                                                             academic scientists and venture capitalists,
                                                                             it would soon gain a place at the frontiers
Biotechnology can yield basic science as well as new medical treatments      of biotechnology.

                                                                                           Harvard Asia Pacific Review     9

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