White House Announces Intention to Encourage Biological Manufacturing Methods

Source: ANDREW POLLACK, NEW YORK TIMES • Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Obama administration is expected to announce a broad plan on Thursday to foster development of the nation’s “bioeconomy,” including the use of renewable resources and biological manufacturing methods.

The National Bioeconomy Blueprint, as the plan is called, discusses a variety of measures and strategies to spur research and development of medical treatments, crops, biofuels and biological manufacturing processes that would replace harsher industrial methods.

Use of biology “can allow Americans to live longer, healthier lives, reduce our dependence on oil, address key environmental challenges, transform manufacturing processes, and increase the productivity and scope of the agricultural sector while growing new jobs and industries,” the report says.

Much of what is in the 43-page-report, which the administration released before its planned announcement on Thursday, is a list of government programs that are already under way. So it is not clear what concrete changes, if any, will result.

Still, some biotechnology industry executives and scientists welcomed the plan as a sign of the government’s commitment, saying it would now be easier to push for specific new programs to foster biotechnology development.

“This may be the first time the country has recognized the total impact that biological sciences has for the current and future economy,” Dr. Phillip A. Sharp, a Nobel laureate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the project, said in an e-mail.

The government is expected to announce some fairly new efforts on Thursday that fit with the blueprint. One would strengthen a program that encourages federal agencies to procure bio-based products, like lubricants made from soybeans. Another would allow a repository of clinical trial data at the Food and Drug Administration to be used for disease research.

President Obama is under pressure to create jobs and has long supported innovation as a key to the future of the American economy. But some people in the biotechnology industry have grumbled that the White House’s idea of innovation focused on electronic devices, social media and solar energy.

“We’ve been ringing the bell saying, ‘Don’t forget us,’ “ James Greenwood, the president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, said in an interview. The blueprint is “a sign that the message has been received,” he said.

Other countries are also pursuing bioeconomy plans. The European Commission adopted its strategy in February.

But the term bioeconomy is not that well defined. The European strategy focuses on sustainable industrial processes. The White House blueprint is aimed at fostering all biology-based businesses, including pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

President Obama announced last September that the administration would develop the blueprint. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy then sought public comment on what such a plan should contain, including whether there were particular “grand challenges” that should be tackled. It received 135 comments from individuals or organizations.

But the blueprint does not commit the government to embark on any particular grand challenges, like curing cancer.

The report says that advances in genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, computing and other disciplines might make possible things like liquid fuels produced directly from carbon dioxide, biodegradable plastics made from biomass, tailored foods to meet specialized dietary requirements and personalized medical treatments based on a patient’s genetic makeup.

The plan lays out five strategies, all of which are already being pursued.

One is to support research and development, including by offering prizes for innovation. Another is to better move discoveries from the laboratory into commerce, in part by having companies get more involved with universities.

Two others are to improve education and work force training, and to encourage collaborations between the public and private sectors.

The fifth strategy, to make regulation faster and more predictable, is likely to be most welcomed by the biotechnology industry. Some pharmaceutical and medical device industry executives have complained that the F.D.A. can be too stringent and nontransparent, discouraging investment in their fields.

The agency is already making some changes to device regulations. And the Department of Agriculture is seeking to speed up reviews of genetically engineered crops.

Yet some consumer advocates say that regulation, particularly of medical devices, has been too lax, allowing unsafe products onto the market.

Some groups are also calling for regulation of a field that could be a cornerstone of the bioeconomy, synthetic biology, which involves synthesizing DNA to create novel organisms to perform specific tasks. The blueprint does note that creation and use of novel organisms “carry potential safety and security risks if misapplied.”

Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, an environmental organization, said the whole idea of a bioeconomy was misguided. Using crops and other plants for energy or manufacturing could lead to destruction of forests, particularly in the tropics, and increases in food prices

“A biomass economy is the recipe for more land grabs, increased hunger, particularly in the developing world, and putting more control of land and food production in the hand of large agribusiness,” he said.