Biotech industry must be developed, says Pandor

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pretoria - The biotechnology industry must be developed in South Africa and the region, to ensure the advancement of therapies for HIV and AIDS, Tuberculosis and other diseases, says Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.

"This is a sector that we have to build and grow. We want to make South Africa one of the top 10 nations in the world in terms of the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, flavour, fragrance and biopesticide industries by 2018," said the minister.

Speaking at the National Biotechnology Workshop in Pretoria on Thursday, Ms Pandor said the heavy burden of disease in southern Africa created the need for added impetus in searching for biotechnology solutions.

"The development of research and innovation platforms and programmes will facilitate rapid drug discovery, rational drug design and development, the validation of traditional therapies, and advances in diagnostics, genomics and proteomics, which will, we hope, help us produce radical and affordable treatments and cures," said the minister.

She said the industry had given specific attention to the exploitation of South Africa's indigenous knowledge to develop medicinal products from plants.

"South Africa is rich in biodiversity and the government has initiated programmes for the development of medicines based on traditional remedies.

"Already, we have initiated four bio-prospecting and product development flagship projects - on traditional medicines, cosmeceuticals, nutraceuticals and ceramics - and registered a Bachelor of Indigenous Knowledge Systems degree, the first of its kind in the world," said the minister.

One area of biotechnology that required further debate and policy was that of genetically modified crops, she said, adding that South Africa had not fully discussed this science and needed to.

Ms Pandor said that South Africa had long recognised the importance of a successful biotechnology industry and many structures had been established across the country to enhance research and innovation.

CapeBiotech, BioPAD, LIFElab and PlantBio, referred to collectively as the Biotechnology (Regional) Innovation Centres, have all migrated to the recently established Technology Innovation Agency or TIA.

TIA has been established as a public funding agency that will ensure that local research and development is converted into commercial products and services. It will also improve coordination and allow an integrated approach for the promotion of innovation, including in biotechnology.

Its primary objectives are to stimulate the development of technology-based products, services and enterprises; develop a technology base for the South African economy; and facilitate the development of human capital for innovation.

Government also published the National Biotechnology Strategy in 2007, along with a ten-year innovation plan setting certain targets for government. The minister said her department was committed to realising this vision.

"Although the development of a sustainable and vibrant biotechnology industry remains a complex task, and although the global biotechnology environment is highly competitive, we are confident that South Africa will be successful," said Ms Pandor.