BioWorld International Correspondent
LONDON - Marine biotechnology in the UK is developing, but a more coordinated approach is required to maximize the development of the sector and increase its share of a $2.4 billion global market.
The emerging industry needs to make better use of publicly funded research, coupling it to government initiatives to promote innovation, according to a government-sponsored report, "The prospects for Marine Biotechnology Development," published last month.
Graham Shimmield, chairman of the Marine Biotechnology Group, which commissioned the report, said: "There is now an opportunity to harness the work of academics, small and medium enterprises, pharmaceutical and other sectors, to develop novel molecules and materials found in the marine environment, for a wide range of applications."
At present there is little effort by companies to exploit the research base. A researcher is quoted in the report as saying, "At best we have been told that if we discover something useful, then companies will talk to us."
The UK situation is repeated across Europe, with no concerted or focused initiatives. That's despite a European Strategy for Marine Biotechnology, published two years ago by the European Science Foundation's Marine Science Board.
Unlike other areas of biotechnology, the marine version is defined in terms of its source material, rather than the market it serves. The report covers the use of marine organisms at the whole cell, or molecular level, in sectors including health care, bioremediation, cosmetics and nutraceuticals, but also identifies that the diversity of potential markets creates a problem, because existing, sector-based technology transfer processes are inappropriate.
With its extensive coastline, easy access to diverse marine habitats and strong research base (more than 60 institutions are involved in marine sciences) the UK has the foundation to build a strong sector. But as yet, there is very little commercialization, and only a limited base of around 20 small companies.
The list of requirements needed to push commercialization is familiar to anyone in biotechnology: developing stable financial investment, opening up lines of communication between researchers and the private sector, delivering leads that are needed and for which industry is willing to pay, and promoting and marketing the potential of marine biotechnology.
The report singled out five areas for further action: maintaining and developing the research and development base, developing a coherent national approach to building the sector, attracting the attention of venture capitalists, mounting marketing and education campaigns to expand understanding of the potential of marine biotechnology, and setting up specialist technical skills training.
Microbial fauna and flora seem to offer the most promise in terms of extraction and purification of bioactives, the genetic engineering of microbes, or the transfer of their genes to other organisms. The range of marine habitats - from hot water vents, to polar ice and high pressure depths - has led to a diversity of biochemistry that often is distinct from that of microorganisms found on land.
Recent advances in bioreactor and culturing technology make it possible to grow such extremophiles under controlled conditions, while genetic engineering makes it possible to transfer desirable characteristics. In short, the range of bioactives in marine organisms represents an unparalled opportunity.
But resources are needed to focus down and cash in on those resources. The report recommended that a centralized marine bioprocessing development facility should be set up. There also needs to be a network of genomics resources to avoid duplication of capabilities.
The report also suggested that UK policy should aim to develop a lab-on-a-chip to allow in situ, taxonomic, genomic and metabolomic analysis of marine microorganisms. That would help unlock the highest value use of marine resources, which is providing novel molecules for drugs, nutraceuticals and cell therapies.
"Developing and exploiting discoveries is difficult without a coherent strategy for investing in research and in proof of principle, an effective knowledge transfer system and a sensitivity to existing and emerging markets," said the report.