JERUSALEM - While biotech is still attracting under 5 percent of venture funding in Israel, compared to 40 percent for software and Internet technologies, there is no lack of interest in this sector.
Last week, the Israeli government approved the establishment of Britech, the British-Israeli fund for cooperation of high-tech companies' research and development. Britech will operate similarly to the U.S.-Israel Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation. The fund has $50 million, provided equally by the two countries. The first project approved is a partnership between Biogen Microgen of the UK with the Rehovot, Israel-based Cellulose Binding Technologies Inc.
Also last week, some of world's top biotechnologists met in Israel. Among them was Charles Arntzen, professor of molecular biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., a keynote speaker at the "Genetics and Its Impact on Society" symposium marking the 75th anniversary of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Arntzen is developing an inexpensive oral vaccine genetically engineered into vegetables to combat diarrhea diseases such as cholera, the No. 1 killer of children in the developing world. He said that ideally, the genetically engineered food would be fast growing and eaten raw, such as a tomato, and the biotech project is "under discussion" with Israeli plant geneticists.
Just before that, Nobel Laureate in Medicine James Dewey Watson arrived to honor the 75th anniversary of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a short series of lectures. Watson dismissively waved away any hint of criticism of genetic engineering as Luddism, and was "more worried about underuse of genetic information than overuse or misuse," and also stated with a rather firm conviction that 95 percent of the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome was "junk DNA."
Watson, 72, with a memory and sarcasm to rival any, "was delighted have the chance to visit Israel for the first time since 1956, to rediscover his Christian roots." He reminisced about his research with late co-researcher, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins - who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their X-ray diffraction pattern images of crystalline DNA and the first description of the twisted-ladder, double-helical structure of DNA. Since 1992, Watson has been president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. Watson declared that laws could protect against the abuse of genetic information because "nobody has the right to see your genes' DNA sequencing without permission" and declaring he has faith in mothers to make the right decision about their own fetuses.
Also last week, the Institute for Advanced Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem held its 9th Jerusalem Spring School in Life Sciences, this one dedicated to New Technologies in Biology and Medicine.
And, ironically, as Gurdev Khush - of the International Rice Research Institute - was being named the Wolf Prize recipient in agriculture for 2000 as "the world leader of the new green revolution," an American attorney and executive director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, Steven Drucker, was finishing up a series of rather provocative lectures as part of an eight-week tour of European countries to publicize the lawsuit brought by nine scientists and over a dozen clergy members against the U.S. FDA for "allowing genetically modified food onto the open market without the appropriate testing."
Drucker presented testimony showing that senior scientists within the FDA had opposed the distribution of these untested new foods onto the market and that the FDA had ignored its own scientists' warnings and caveats. He said he discovered this after petitioning for total disclosure of the 44,000 pages of FDA documentation, and is accusing the FDA of a whitewash, "stifling the opinions of its own scientists and those in academia who voice concerns about the safety of GM food, to further the U.S. government's interest in promoting the country's multibillion dollar biotech industry."
He also presented evidence for increased health risks associated with GM crops because "they are sprayed directly with two to five times more herbicides," and showed that GM crop yields are significantly lower than non-GM variants. Chief scientist in Israel, Dan Levanon, of the Ministry of Agriculture, told BioWorld International that "Israel relies on the soy crops of the U.S." and "on the safety decisions of the U.S. FDA." but that following the lecture he had sent a query through the American Embassy and awaits a response.