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ISSN: 0971-5622

VATIS Update Biotechnology is published 4 times a year to keep the readers up to date of most of the relevant and latest technological developments and events in the field of Biotechnology. The Update is tailored to policy-makers, industries and technology transfer intermediaries.

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India enacts biodiversity law

After years of consultations and deferral, the Biological Diversity Act 2002 has been passed by the Indian parliament. The act proposes setting up of a three-tier structure, including an apex National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) and establishment of state biodiversity boards and biodiversity management committees. NBA will also regulate access to the diverse plant and animal genetic resources in the country. A biodiversity act became essential after India signed the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1992  Down to Earth, 31 December 2002

Biotech: an effective pollution control tool

With environmental protection becoming a global concern, chemical industries the world over have resolved to re-examine conventional methodology. It is seeking new ways of developing and applying more efficient and environmentally benign strategies for future sustainable growth. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), continuous innovation, improvement and use of clean technology for reducing pollution levels and consumption of resources is the key to industrial sustainability. Chemical processes for controlling pollution such as neutralization, coagulation, flocculation, chemical decomposition are costly and leave residues. It is at this point that the biological methods of pollution control are most relevant. Biotechnological decomposition is achieved by the activity of micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae, and the use of enzymes to catalyse such reactions. This technology employs a set of tools developed to deal with cells and other objects (e.g. enzymes) derived from complex organisms in tissue culture. The Hindu Business Line, 25 December 2002

Pollution triggers genetic defects

Air pollution could be harming future generations as well those directly exposed to it. A study in Canada suggests that pollution from coal fires can trigger genetic defects that are passed down the generations. At McMaster University, researchers found genetic defects in herring gulls exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) pollution. PAHs produced by burning coal and many other fuels, including diesel, cause mutations in lab animals exposed to large doses. To determine if simply breathing in such pollution everyday has any effect on DNA, researchers set up two “mouse hotels,” heated and ventilated sheds, near local steel mills that run on coal. Each hotel contained 20 male and 20 female mice. For 10 weeks, the mice were exposed to the air while being fed clean food and water. They were then brought back to the lab, mated and their progeny examined for genetic changes. It was found that even after a brief exposure, the genetic impact was easy to detect. New Scientist, 14 December 2002

Report touts environmental benefits of GM crops

According to a report released by the Consortium Technology Information Centre, the United States, genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant crops yield far-reaching benefits to farmers, society and nature by reducing soil tillage. Farmers normally till soil to control weeds, but this process results in large amounts of topsoil erosion by water and wind, which in turn depletes the soil of nutrients and contributes significantly to water and air pollution. Entitled “Conservation tillage and plant biotechnology: how new technologies can improve the environment by reducing the need to plow,” the report puts forth evidence that by providing farmers with an alternative to tillage for controlling weeds, herbicide-resistant crops contribute to significant environment benefits and cost savings by farmers and tax payers. Specifically, each year in the United States decreased tillage frequency reduced soil erosion by almost 1 billion tonnes per year, saved an estimated US$3.5 billion in water treatments in 2002 and saved about 1.4 billion litres of fuel, which in turn reduced greenhouse gases by more than 0.45 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide. In addition, reducing tillage increases the prevalence of beneficial birds, mammals, insects, microbes and earthworms within and around fields. Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 20, December 2002



Scientists map largest chromosome

Scientists in France and the United States have mapped chromosome 14, the longest sequenced to date and the site of over 60 disease genes. This feat, requiring nearly 100 researchers, marks the fourth of the 24 human chromosomes mapped so far as part of an international effort. Genoscope, the French national sequencing centre, led the project with contributions from scientists at the Institute for Systems Biology and the Washington University School of Medicine. Scientists at Genoscope informed that the chromosome comprises more than 87 million pairs of DNA, all of which have been sequenced so that the chromosome’s map does not have any gaps. Currently, this is the longest piece of contiguous DNA that has been sequenced. Researchers have described chromosome 14 and its 87,410,661 pairs of DNA, a fraction of the total 3 billion pairs found in the human genome. The team identified 1,050 genes and gene fragments, among them more than 60 disease genes. These include genes linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s, spastic paraplegia, NiemannPick disease and a severe form of Usher syndrome. Over the last three years, nearly complete sequences of chromosomes 22, 21, 20 and now chromosome 14 have been published. By April 2003, researchers around the globe hope to complete sequencing of the remaining 20 chromosomes.  Chemical weekly, 14 January 2003

Draft sequence of rice genome

In the United States, scientists have completed the draft sequence of the rice genome Oryza sativa japonica. Researchers from Clemson University, Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, Washington University and the University of Arizona participated in this sequencing effort. The international project also included scientists from Japan, Brazil, China, India, France, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.  Researchers state that the draft is a “high-quality, genetic blueprint” of the rice genome. This project is scheduled to be completed in 2005, according to the Institute for Genomic Research, a partner in the international project. In November 2002, the collaboration had published the full sequences of chromosomes 1 and 4, out of a total of twelve chromosomes in the 430 million base pair genome.  Website: 

Mapping a tribe’s genetic make-up 

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), India, has mapped the genetic sequence of Kothas, a tribal group living in the hilly Nilgiris of India. This project, which began eight months ago, is aimed at studying Kotha tribe in detail to determine the reason for high mortality rates. Kothas are among the 36 tribal groups living in the Nilgiris. Kotha folks are reported to have high mortality rates and their existing numbers is less than 2,000. The study also stressed on the relationship between the high mortality rates and intra-community marriages, a custom practised by the tribe. Intra-community marriages are common among the tribal groups leading to severe health problems like sexually transmitted diseases, which is now rampant owing to child and consanguineous marriages. ICMR is currently conducting studies on the genetic make-up of seven more tribal groups in the country, two of which are from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These studies are aimed to find out the difference in the genetic make-up among the tribals and evolve statistics to assess the high mortality rates, morbidity rates and the like so that medical assistance could be devised differently for the tribals.  Chronicle Pharmabiz, 12 December 2002

Rice genome: India’s contribution

A high-quality draft sequence of rice genome has been completed by the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project (IRGSP), with assistance from 10 participating nations including India. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), along with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, had launched the Indian initiative at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and the University of Delhi. As parallel future strategy, DBT has initiated a functional genomics effort, on inter-institutional basis, covering all  scientists and agencies. These endeavours have heralded a new era in plant molecular biology research, for crop improvement. India has the largest area in the world under rice cultivation, totalling 28 per cent of its arable land. The Indian team completed its international obligations as a member of IRGSP in a record time of 2.5 years, contributing 15 million bases of sequence for chromosome 11. The rice genome sequence harbours 62,435 genes and would serve as a global heritage and golden standard for gene discovery and precision breeding for crop improvement. This sequence will also help in uncovering useful genes from wheat, maize and millets,  among other crops that are close relatives of rice.  Business Standard, 27 December 2002

ICMR approves genomic research projects

The Indian Council of Medicinal Research (ICMR) has approved 13 new projects under its mega funding programme for research genomics and allied medical sciences. The new projects were selected out of 32 proposals from various institutions in the area of genomic research and medical schools in the country. The ICMR initiative is the first-ever genomic research project of its kind to be undertaken in India with the participation of 13 medical institutions and hospitals, and ICMR basic research institutions. Leading institutions like AIIMS, PGI, Sanjay Gandhi Institute and JNU are participating in this initiative. The whole programme has been planned keeping in mind the overall benefits it means to the Indian health-care sector. A key outcome of the ICMR initiative is the opening up of joint research possibilities between basic research institutions and medical institutions. The council has already sanctioned funds to carry out 65 research programmes in the same area during early 2002. The Union Health Ministry has assured a sum of US$11 million as initial outlay for the funding purpose. The government has earmarked US$22 million for genomics research in the 10th five-year plan. The sanctioned and ongoing projects cover areas such as vaccine genomics, vector genomics, vaccinology, drug development, disease susceptibility genes, pharmacogenetics, genetic diseases/disorders, nutritional genomics and reproductive genomics.  Chronicle Pharmabiz, 5 December 2002



New software

In India, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) is developing a new software package called “Bio-Suite” that will be used in analysing and accelerating drug discovery. Academic institutions like the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Centre for Biotechnology and Indian Institute of Sciences are part of this project. Bio-Suite is a comprehensive, portable, scaleable software suite for bioinformatics that will be utilized in the New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI) project, promoted by TCS in association with CSIR and other academic institutes. Dr. M. Vidyasagar, TCS Executive Vice-president states that “The company is expected to launch the Alpha version of Bio-Suite in May 2003.” The software package has been developed such that it can be used for genome analysis, sequence analysis, 3D modelling, simulations, manipulation, structural changes, pathway modelling, drug design, SNP analysis and comparative genomics. The central government’s NMITLI project, estimated to cost about US$3.26 million, is underway and is expected to be complete by March 2004. Of the total project cost, TCS has bagged orders worth US$1.7 million. The comprehensive suite, developed by the Advanced Technology Division of TCS, runs on platforms such as Compaq, IBM Aix, SGI, Linux clusters and the operating systems Unix and Linux. The Financial Express, 21 November 2002

Funding bioinformatics system

Paradigm Genetic Inc., the United States, and LION Biosciences AG of Germany have been awarded a five-year, US$11.7 million Advanced Technology Programme (ATP) grant from the United States-based National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the area of bioinformatics. The federal funding will support development of a Target Assessment Technologies Suite (TATS). Named ‘Advanced Technology Programme’, the project is managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and provides cost-shared funding to industry for high-risk R&D projects with the potential to spark important broad-based economic benefits. Significant commercial applications for the new technologies is anticipated. ATP is meant to bridge the gap between research labs and market place, stimulating prosperity through innovation. Novel technologies promise significant commercial pay-offs and widespread benefits for the nation. This project highlights the growing importance of bioinformatics in improving R&D performance and productivity. The cost of developing a new drug and bringing it to the market is estimated to be about US$800 million. Current estimates attribute 75 per cent of drug development costs to drugs that did not make it to the market owing to adverse reactions and lack of efficacy.  WISTA, Vol. 4, Issue 7, January 2003

Biotech educational modules

In a bid to enhance the quality of biotech education in India, Wageningen University of the Netherlands has launched educational modules for biotechnology. The University has been offering quality programmes for Asian countries through collaborations with quality research and educational institutions for cooperative and collaborative research and education. Wageningen has tied up with two service providers in India, BioInfraa and Centre for Life Technologies (C-Lift), through its coordinator in India Dr. Seetharam Annadana, a consulting biotechnologist. The project aims to bring together students, teachers, industry and frontline NGO’s working on frontier technology in various sectors including pharmaceuticals. The University plans to make its foray by offering courses in recombinant DNA technology, bioinformatics and process engineering. With regard to recombinant DNA technology, the University has partnered with C-Lift for setting up wet labs in the Centre. The University has identified the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology and Institute of Engineers in Bangalore as two potential partners. BioInfraa, a two-year old firm involved in creating quality infrastructure for biotechnology, is currently engaged in creating centralized infrastructure to cater to the practical skill development of students and mid-career professionals. C-Lift offers skill-based learning in biotechnology and life sciences. Its sophisticated learning centre is geared up to promote excellence in technology, knowledge and content in biotechnology areas.  Express Pharma Pulse, 9 January 2003

India’s bioinformatics policy

A bioinformatics (BI) policy has been proposed In India by the government. A draft policy document, prepared and circulated for comments by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), envisages a system of accreditation for BI units. Facilities satisfying criteria on infrastructure, skilled human resources, etc. would qualify for accreditation. Certified units from the public, private and joint sectors would receive incentives including low-cost funds for development of high-end bioinformatics tools that can be gainfully traded in the global market. BI tools are vital in facilitation and furtherance of advanced areas of biotech research like genomics and proteomics that could lead to gene-based therapeutics and other products. Estimates are that the country would have an income of around US$750 million from biotech products and services by the year 2005, which would reach US$1.5 billion in 2007. Revenue from commercialization of BI tools would account for roughly 50-60 per cent of this projected revenue, and 60 per cent of the total revenue from the BI sector would be from exports. DBT’s draft policy intends to set up five centres of bioinformatics excellence in the country that would act as BI hubs. The DBT-governed Bioinformatics Information System (BTIS) network consists of 61 centres that comply with global standards. Moreover, there is a super-computing facility at IIT, Delhi, which can undertake advanced computational biology research. At present, several industry-governed alliances are operating in the bioinformatics sector. Satyam Computers’ collaborattion with the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and a joint venture between Tata Consultancy Services and the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics are among such ventures. The Economic Times, 20 December 2002


Master molecule that controls action of genes identified

Scientists at the University of California in the United States have identified the first ‘master’ molecule in cell nucleus that controls the action of hundreds of different genes at once through its action on enzymes. The molecule affects enzymes that restructure chromosomes, exposing genes to proteins that can trigger key gene processes, including initiation of protein production, copying and repairing of genes. The molecule’s broad effect on a number of genes may allow organisms, including humans, to respond quickly to stress. These research findings are based on studies on yeast, but the same molecule is present in humans and all other higher organisms. Mutations that affect enzymes involved in chromosome restructuring are linked to human cancers. Many enzymes have been identified that modify chromosome structure and trigger gene transcription, but this is the first example of a molecule that regulates these restructuring enzymes and can affect numerous genes at once. This molecule’s action might allow the cell to regulate the activity of a number of genes in response to stress.  Express Pharma Pulse, 5 December 2002

New protein

Researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the United States, have identified a protein called ‘Trpm5’ in taste cells that is integral to the delivery of bitter taste messages to the brain. These findings could play a critical role in helping to eliminate the bitter taste that often accompanies liquid and solid oral medications. The research team was led by Prof. Robert Margolskee and the discovery has been licensed to Linguagen Corp., a taste technology company. In taste cells, Trpm5 responds to bitter flavours by converting taste information into signals that are later transmitted to taste nerve cells. The signals then activate the bitter detection centre of the brain leading the brain to perceive a bitter taste. This is an important discovery in the world of taste technology since the identified channel protein Trpm5 has been shown to be present in taste cells and in the gut. Knowing that this protein is selectively expressed in taste buds would enable scientists to specifically target their efforts in isolating compounds that block better tastes.  Chronicle Pharmabiz, 28 November 2002

Antibody production

Sigma-Aldrich, the United States, has introduced a powdered formulation of its animal- and serum-free hybridoma medium to maximize production of antibodies and other biopharmaceuticals. Similar to its liquid medium formulation, Sigma’s powdered medium eliminates adventitious agents in the production process, saving time and cost while also satisfying regulatory guidelines. The powdered medium supports excellent cell growth and antibody production by a wide variety of hybridoma cell lines.  Contact: Website: .  Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 20, December 2002

Versatile rotor

The versatile AllSpin JS-5.3 rotor from Beckman Coulter, the United States, combines speed and high-throughput to meet the needs of cellular, protein and genetic analysis applications. Designed for Avanti J-E and J-20XP centrifuges, the AllSpin rotor features a four-place design for easy sample handling, along with patented “switch reluctance” drive technology for fast acceleration and deceleration. It can reach forces of 6,130 × g and has nine new adapters for a wide range of sample tubes and bottles.  Contact: Website: .  Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 20, December 2002

Scientists discover gene that could halt spread of cancer

A team of scientists, led by Dr. Dan Theodorescu at the University of Virginia Health System in the United States, employed advanced DNA technology to uncover that low levels of a gene called RhoGDI2 were found more often in invasive cancer than in localized cancer. This is the first study linking the RhoGDI2 gene to cancer metastasis. The gene could also be used as a warning to help catch the spread of cancer in patients earlier. To identify RhoGDI2 as a metastasis suppressor gene, the team “replaced” missing RhoGDI2 genes in human metastatic cancer cells that did not manufacture the gene on their own. According to Dr. Theodorescu, when the RhoGDI2 gene is active in a cancer cell, the cell produces a protein that prevents the cancer cell from invading other organs. Scientists believe that a future diagnostics test for low levels of this protein could be developed. Absence of the protein could serve as a red flag for physicians and help determine which cancers have the propensity to spread. Used in combination with other prognostic tests and bio-markers, the RhoGDI2 expression may help determine the most effective and least invasive treatment for each patient, based on the seriousness of the cancer.  Express Pharma Pulse, 28 November 2002

Studying DNA interactions

Scientists have found a way to study the shape and movement of individual molecules of DNA, the genetic material. The technique is called single molecule fluorescence and has been developed by scientists at the University of Illinois, the United States. It works by tagging a molecule with fluorescent chemicals. This allows scientists to track how the molecule moves, interacts with those around it and performs its biological functions. In the United Kingdom, scientists from the Cancer Research Centre and Nucleic Acid Research Group at the University of Dundee have employed the new system to investigate a process called DNA recombination, in which cells patch up their genes by swapping a damaged piece of DNA for an intact piece. This study helps scientists understand more details of DNA recombination. The new technique is also likely to prove valuable in many other areas of biology including biological functioning, DNA repairs, etc.  BSS Newsletter, February 2003

Enzyme shows early promise in fat melting

Biospecifics Technologies Corp., the United States, is testing a treatment for shrinking fatty tumours that could be the answer to shedding unwanted fat without resorting to stressful dieting and exercise or risky liposuction. “Promising results” have been achieved in early clinical trials of an injectable treatment for reducing fatty tumours under the skin known as lipomas. The treatment involves a single injection of the enzyme collagenase, which occurs naturally in the body. The enzyme is dissolved in saline solution, or salt water, and directly injected into the lipoma. While animal studies are complete, Food and Drug Administration-approved testing on humans is at an early stage. The first human clinical trials began in June 2002 on just 12 patients with lipomas no larger than 0.05 m. Dr. Zachary Gerut, a plastic surgeon who is conducting the trail for Biospecifics, states that “Ten out of the 12 patients had a significant reduction in the size of lipoma and at least seven had greater than 50 per cent reduction.”  Chemical Weekly, 21 January 2003

Protein system

IBI Universal Protein System is a mini-format system designed by Shelton Scientific, the United States, to complete analysis 2-3 times faster than conventional gels. It is ideal for running Tris or LongLife Gradipore™ precast gels and can run one or two gels within 30 minutes. The system can fit either 10 × 10 cm precast gels or 8 × 10 cm precast Gradipore gels. An Easy-Snap capturing system enables fast and easy placement of the gels. The system incorporates patented IBI Low-Fog Submarine devices’ vented lid, which reduces heat build-up during electrophoresis, keeping the system running cool. The gravity-feed electrode connector eliminates sample disturbance during set-up and increases user safety by interrupting power when removed.  Contact: Shelton Scientific, 230 Long Hill Cross Road, Shelton, CT 06484, the United States. Website:  Genetic Engineering News, October 2002


India eyes 8 per cent of global biotech market share

The global demand for biotechnology products is projected to be around US$50 billion by 2010 and India is expected to corner about 8 per cent of this pie. Elaborating on the country’s efforts to speed up research and development, application and commercialization of research leads, an official release pointed out that the plan outlay had been more than doubled, from US$135 million in the 9th plan (1997-2002) to US$315 million in the 10th plan. Initiatives to support R&D have been strengthened with the establishment of infrastructure – 62 bioinformatics centres, 25 modern biotech facilities, centres of excellence and 64 post-graduate teaching programmes, establishment of a National Bioresource Development Board, new institutions such as the National Centre for Plant Genome Research and the Institute of Bioresource and Sustainable Development. The actual consumption of biotech products during 1999 was US$1.78 billion in India and projected to reach US$4.27 billion by 2010. This could be further subdivided into human and animal healthcare products (US$1.7 billion), agriculture, including seeds, (US$1.4 billion), industrial products (US$978 million) and other products (US$145 million). Chemical weekly, 14 January 2003

Biotech alliance launched

A major initiative aimed at enhancing investment opportunities in the biotechnology sector, both in India and the United States, has been kick-started with the Confederation of Indian Industry and the United States-India Business Council launching the Indo-United States Biotech Alliance. Other partners in this effort include the United States-based Biotechnology Industry Organization and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. According to the Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs of the United States, Mr. Alan Larson, the launch of the alliance would ensure bio-partnering between the two countries by bringing together private industry and research associations in a more coordinated and focused manner. Mr. Larson further stressed that the impact of biotechnology was of crucial importance for the agriculture sector and to develop life-saving drugs. The alliance would help in long-term strategic planning, clearing misconceptions about biotechnology and enhance and encourage industries in both nations to carry on business. Dr. P. Ghosh, Additional Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office of India, added that opportunities for bio-partnering between India and the United States was enormous as India has human gene capital and traditional knowledge about genetics. This alliance would exchange and share information about bilateral trade, investment opportunities and business cooperation in biotechnology, promote one-to-one interaction between the representatives of businesses and the governments of India and the United States, and facilitate visits, among others.  The Hindu Business Line, 9 November 2002

MoU for stem cells research

The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), India, has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Cardiff School of Biosciences, the United Kingdom, for cooperation in the areas of mammalian genetics, embryonic stem biology, mouse transgenics and gene knockout technologies. Cardiff School of Biosciences is the world leader in the areas of transgenics, neuroscience, molecular cell biology and connective tissue research. Recently, CCMB set up a National Facility for Transgenic and Gene Knockout Mice. In addition, there are several other facilities in the area of cell biology where sophisticated techniques such as proteomics, microarray, fluorescence-activated cell sorting and X-ray crystallography are being used. The X-ray crystallography facility will be used to study 3-dimensional structures of biological macromolecules like proteins and nucleic acid. Information thus unravelled will play a crucial part in understanding the functioning of cells in the human body. These leads will help in understanding the functions of genes and also in structure-based drug designing.  Chronicle Pharmabiz, 5 December 2002

Cellular Genomics in pact with Schering AG

Cellular Genomics Inc. (CGI) has entered into a collaborative research agreement with Schering AG under which CGI would apply its proprietary chemical genetics technologies to study an undisclosed target kinase selected by Schering. As per the terms of agreement, CGI will receive an upfront fee and series of milestone payments over a period of 15 months. This arrangement enables effective extension of the kinase target platform. CGI delivers a competitive validation technology that raises Schering’s chances to enter novel drug targets for drug discovery and development in its fields of interest. CGI’s proprietary cutting-edge approach to kinase drug discovery is based on the replacement of a normal kinase with a modified kinase or ASKA (Analogue Sensitive Kinase Allele). This modified kinase can be inhibited with exquisite selectivity and specificity by a proprietary small molecule inhibitor, such that the kinase can be validated as a drug target with both the specificity of genetics and the pharmaceutical relevance of small molecule chemistry. ASKA mice are created in which a fully functional ASKA replaces normal kinase in the genome. The target kinase can then be reversibly inhibited by systemic administration of CGI’s proprietary small molecule inhibitors. These mice represent the most pharmaceutically relevant disease models for establishing the role of kinase targets across a wide spectrum of  potential clinical indications and provide a new gold standard for kinase target validation, drug dose response analysis and therapeutic index determination. Chronicle pharmabiz, 19 December 2002

Agreement for discovery  of new therapeutic

In the United States, Genome Therapeutics has entered into an agreement with Amgen Inc. for the identification and development of novel therapeutic agents for bone diseases, including osteoporosis. Both companies will participate in collaborative research efforts to isolate drug candidate/s suitable for development. The companies may use genetic information developed by Genome Therapeutics, based on research conducted at the Creighton University Osteoporosis Research Centre, which has been exclusively licensed to Amgen. As part of the agreement, Genome Therapeutics would receive from Amgen an upfront cash payment, sponsored research funding and, potentially, additional milestone and downstream consideration depending on the success of the discovery, development and commercialization activities. The total potential additional payments are significant and within the range commonly found in the industry in agreements for research programmes at this stage of development and consistent with previous Genome Therapeutics discovery pacts focused on chronic human diseases.  Express Pharma Pulse, 9 January 2003

Biotech funding in the United States

While private investment in biotechnology rose in the United States during the year 2002, the growth marked a shift to funding drug discovery companies at the expense of genomics and tool concerns, according to an audit by the private-equity tracking firm VentureWire. Overall, biotech firms raised US$3.2 billion in 262 financing rounds in 2002, up slightly from US$3 billion in 219 rounds in 2001. The growth bucked the trend – venture capital (VC) flowing to start-up companies was US$20.3 billion in 2002, down from US$37.7 billion in 2001. Enterprise software, wireless, semiconductors and medical device sectors all registered a downturn in financing. Drug discovery and development firms raked in US$2.4 billion through 170 deals in 2002 compared with US$1.8 billion in 121 rounds in 2001. Drug delivery firms saw an upswing in financing, scooping up US$205 million in 16 deals in 2002 versus US$58 million in seven deals the previous year. Funding for bioinformatics, genomics and proteomics sector, however, dropped to 23 deals worth US$231 million in 2002 as against 49 deals valued at US$730 million the previous year. Investment in biotech research tool companies, which include microarray and mirofluidic producers, was US$301 million in 38 deals in 2002 compared with US$449 million in 37 rounds the previous year. Paucity in the number of successful stand-alone companies in these areas made VCs switch gears towards discovery. Most of the activity now for VCs is in discovery and development. Even former genomics companies are trying to refashion themselves as drug discovery companies. Venture capital firms doing the most deals in 2002 – New Enterprise Associates, Intel Capital, and JPMorgan Partners – all did fewer deals than in 2001. Website:


Folic acid reduces heart diseases

Folic acid can dramatically reduce the risk of heart disease, deep vein thrombosis and stroke by reducing the level of homocysteine, an amino acid, report scientists from the Department of Cardiology, Southampton General Hospital, the United Kingdom. More than 100 studies on the association between serum homosysteine and cardiovascular disease were analysed. While a few scrutinized the prevalence of genetic mutation, which increases homocysteine (genetic studies), others dwelt on homocysteine and disease risk (prospective studies). Genetic studies and prospective studies did not share the same potential sources of error but both yielded similar results such as strong evidence that the association between homocysteine and cardiovascular disease is causal. On this basis, researchers estimate that folic acid could reduce the risk of ischaemic heart disease by 16 per cent, deep vein thrombosis by 25 per cent and stroke by 24 per cent. Folic acid can be taken as tablets by people at high risk (those with existing cardiovascular disease or anyone above 55 years of age) or possibly supplied to the general public through food fortification or a combination of both, as a simple and safe means of prevention. Folic acid food fortification has already been introduced in the United States to prevent the birth defect spina bifida (congenital spinal defect in which part of the spinal cord protrudes). Research has shown that fortification could also help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Chemical Weekly, 24 December 2002

Human kidneys grown in mice

Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, have successfully grown the world’s first functioning human kidneys in a breakthrough that holds potential benefits for thousands of people. A team headed by Prof. Yair Reisner transformed cells taken from embryonic tissue into new, functioning organs. The kidneys produce urine just like normal organs. Presently, scientists have grown the ‘spare part’ kidneys only in laboratory mice. However, researchers predict that their research will revolutionize transplant medicine. Scientists took stem cells from areas of both human and pig embryos they believed would be rich in precursor kidney cells and implanted them into mice. They found that the cells grew to form perfect human or pig kidneys. The fully functional kidneys sprouted new blood vessels, thereby lowering the chances of rejection significantly. This result suggests that human or pig foetal tissue can take on the shape and function of a healthy kidney if transplanted into humans. Furthermore, scientists have also identified the time during embryonic development when stem cells are suitable to form functioning kidneys. Their experiments with human immune cells also indicated that correct timing of the process can stop the body from rejecting the organ. The Hindu Business Line, 25 December 2002

New anthrax vaccine developed

In India, a recombinant candidate anthrax vaccine has been developed and is expected to be available on the market by July this year. The new product is now undergoing regulatory pre-clinical toxicology investigations. Results of tests on animals proved it to be safe, without any toxic or adverse effects. The vaccine has been developed jointly by a team of scientists from Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Institute of Genomics and Integrated Biology, with financial and other support from DBT. The technology has been transferred to the industry for commercialization after obtaining clearance from authorities.  Chemical weekly, 31 December 2002

Genetic way to make drugs more effective

Researchers at Warwick University (WU), the United Kingdom, have discovered molecules that lock away sections of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), enabling drugs to work more effectively. By locking DNA in tight coils, scientists could stop particular sequences from activating biological changes that doctors would rather avoid or wish to regulate more effectively. So far, researchers striving to devise synthetic molecules capable of binding to DNA have been partially successful. The molecules could only be stretched across a couple of DNA base pairs. Dr. Mike Hannon and Dr. Alison Rodger of WU have produced a large synthetic molecule, called a supramolecular cylinder, that binds the major groove of DNA rather than the minor one. When it binds, the synthetic molecule bends the particular section of DNA it is attached to. It becomes tightly coiled together in a manner resembling the way non-synthetic molecules package DNA together in chromosomes. This gives scientists a new tool in gene regulation. It is presumed that the strong binding mechanism to the major groove will allow drugs to be delivered not only into the correct cell but into the nucleus as well. The supramolecular cylinder is an iron triple helicate with three organic strands wrapped around two iron centres to give it the cylinder shape that neatly fits within a DNA helix. It is about the same size as parts of a protein that recognize and bind with particular sections of DNA.  Chemical Weekly, 3 December 2002

Breastfeeding boosts Hib resistance

A prospective study undertaken in Sweden, during 1987-92, collected details from children afflicted with invasive Haemophilus infections. Measurement of anti-Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) titres indicated that the longer an infant was exclusively breastfed, the higher the titres of antibody types lgG1 and lgG2 measurable to the invading bacteria. The relationship was only statistically significant in children over 18 months of age. This fascinating observation supports earlier work indicating that exclusive breastfeeding improves protection against Hib infections and improves responses to a range of vaccines. The mechanisms for this activity, which continue long after breastfeeding ceases, is unclear. However, it merits further attention given the difficulties with establishing good responses to many polysaccharide antigens in infants when they most need this type of protection.  Trends in Immunology, Vol. 23, No. 12, December 2002

Cancer-causing genes identified

A ‘faulty’ gene that causes a rare type of stomach cancer has been identified, bringing hope to families affected by the inherited ailment of a cure through genetic screening. A research team at Cambridge University, the United Kingdom, found that a rare type of stomach cancer affecting 200 people in the country each year is often caused by a particular faulty gene. The team discovered that it is possible to detect the damaged gene in a third of families with a history of the disease. Scientists scrutinized 39 families with a history of stomach cancer from nine countries. Eleven of the families were affected by a type of disease called hereditary diffuse gastric cancer (HDGC). In four of these, patients had faulty versions of the E-cadherin gene, which helps cells bind together in tissue. According to Dr. Carlos Caldas, people with a faulty E-cadherin gene have a 60 to 80 per cent chance of developing stomach cancer at some stage of their life, with many getting it very young. It is not an easily treated disease and survival is very poor. However, by screening the damaged gene, those affected could undergo surgery to prevent the disease. Dr. Caldas further states that the gene is damaged in about a third of HDGC families but apparently in none with other forms of inherited stomach cancer. Many of the genes responsible for inherited cancers also go wrong in tumours in non-hereditary forms of the disease, which means that the new development could have wide-ranging implications. The faulty CHK2 gene is one of a number of genes that together increase breast cancer risk. Scientists hope that their discovery will improve genetic testing for the disease and open new avenues for treatment. They believe that a high risk of suffering the inherited form of breast cancer is more often caused by a combination of genes. Chemical Weekly, 3 December 2002

Stem cell study may yield diabetes cure

Researchers at Stanford University, the United States, report to be on the verge of a possible new treatment for diabetics. The team nurtured mouse embryonic stem cells until they developed into a tissue that made insulin. Researchers even placed the tissue into diabetic mice and showed that the animals could be sustained with insulin produced by the tissue graft. However, researchers could not grow fully mature, insulin-producing pancreatic islets, which are called beta cells. They have developed something that shares several important properties with the beta cells. Researchers hope to use embryonic stem cells to make new beta cells that could be transplanted into diabetics for producing normal levels of insulin. The Economic Times, 2 December 2002


Proteomics project

In the United States, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) is planning to spend US$157 million over seven years to begin unlocking the protein interactions that underlie a spectrum of heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders. This proteomics initiative will be spread over nine academic research centres and one non-profit group. The mone will first go to a broad spectrum of projects that range from an effort to develop mass spectrometry tools to proteomic analysis of blood in autoimmune disease. NHLBI plans to help further research by ensuring that technologies, techniques and data from the ten centres will be available to other scientists, either freely or by way of licensing agreements.  Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 20, December 2002

Toponomics to get next-generation IT platform 

In Germany, MelTec GmbH and the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology (FIT) have signed a collaborative agreement to develop an information technology (IT) platform for management and interpretation of high-throughput tests analysing protein networks of whole cells in situ. It is also known as topological proteomics or toponomics. MelTec continuously generates large data sets to decipher the toponome of cells and tissues by tracing out as well as interpreting the context of proteins in cells. Under the agreement, FIT and MelTec will develop software-based approaches to analyse and visualize protein networks, and then correlate that data with results from in vitro and in vivo experiments. Using MelTec’s robotic toponomics imaging technology, along with FIT’s image management and proteomics software, a new bioinformatics platform would be created for the systematic interpretation of these vast protein networks. The system will rapidly produce high-quality results for understanding how proteins impact a drug’s effectiveness. This new system has the potential to become a key technology that paves the way for a systematic approach to understand disease pathology and treatment.  Chronicle Pharmabiz, 30 January 2003


Practical Biotechnology

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