LONDON _ Celsis International, one of a handful of non-pharmaceutical biotech companies listed on the London StockExchange (CEL), is moving into environmental biotechnology.

The company, which specializes in systems to rapidly detect andmeasure microbial contamination, said that it has started customertrials of a water test, that can detect E. coli and other harmfulbacteria. Developed during the past 18 months, Celsis's new test,based on the company's bioluminescence technology and its rapidmicrobial counting system, is in site trials.

Peter Grant, technical director of Celsis, told BioWorld Today thatthe idea behind the new system is to provide "a disposable mini-microbiology lab through the post." The test kit consists of a multi-well plate. A technician adds a water sample that is then distributedevenly into the cells. After 24-hours of incubation some cells changecolor, with the number of colored cells measuring the E. coli count.

Celsis said that the new enzyme-based reagent test cuts one to threedays off the time it normally takes to test water samples. With morethan 150 million tests carried out each year, the company estimatesthat this market is now worth around 200 million ($320 million) ayear. But Grant forecasts that a simple test could lead to a significantrise in the number of tests. "Once you get the product out there," hesaid, "people will use it for all sorts of things that they hadn't thoughtof before."

Grant said that the move into environmental testing represents "aserious commitment" by Celsis to this sector. The company's coreexpertise is in industrial monitoring in industries where purity isessential, such as food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

The company's move into the sector is part of a growing interest inenvironmental biotechnology in Europe and the U.K. Grant admitsthat "it might not be sexy," but it promises to be "a good business in ahard commercial sense."

A report _ Biotechnology For A Clean Environment: Prevention,Detection, Remediation _ from the Paris-based Organization ofEconomic Cooperation and Development (OECD) describesprotection and restoration of the environment as possibly the "mostimportant domain" for biotechnology. "The long-term potential forenvironmental technologies," said the report, "and the impacts onindustrial growth and employment could be significant." Thedocument estimates that 15 to 25 percent of the environmental markethas a biotechnological component.

Market Could Grow To $75B

The report forecasts that the market could grow from $40 billion inthe early 1990s "to perhaps $75 billion by the year 2000." In allOECD areas, "hundreds of suppliers and thousands of potential usercompanies, both big and small, already invest, or plan to invest, inenvironmental biotechnology." The environmental market "hasproved fertile ground for start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures."

Biotechnology, said the report, can prevent or reduce localenvironmental damage in a number of ways. Added value processescan convert waste into useful products. "Processes using micro-organisms may also recover valuable materials, particularly preciousmetals, from waste streams for recycling."

Other areas where biotechnology can bring environmental benefitsinclude the development of "new biomaterials, leading to the manufacture of materials with reducedenvironmental impact" and of "new biological production processes,which generate more manageable waste."

The report also predicts "prevention, detection and monitoring bybiological methods" as playing an increasingly significant role. Herethe prospects are for biotech methods of detecting and monitoring theenvironment, as well as for measurement and control of processes inindustry.

Bioremediation, the use of microorganisms to clean up polluted sites,is also the subject of a number of recommendations. "Thebiochemistry, genetics and regulation of catabolic pathways requiremore intensive investigation," said the report.

The main author of the OECD report, Mike Griffiths, a consultantbased in Woking in the U.K., said that he was surprised to find thatmany of the operations and processes used in environmentalbiotechnology are "black boxes, people don't know what is going oninside them. An enormous amount of R & D is still required to turnthem into genuine industrial processes that are controllable," Griffithstold BioWorld Today.

Griffiths said that there is also a large gap in our understanding of"the ordinary microorganisms in a patch of soil. We don't need totalk about genetically modified microorganisms until we know whatis there naturally."

Missed Opportunities

Further encouragement for companies to consider non-pharmaceutical applications of biotechnology comes from tworeports commissioned by the Department of Trade and Industry(DTI) in the U.K. The first, Biotechnology Market Research Report,by PA Consulting, identified significant opportunities forbiotechnology in the U.K. that were being missed.

The PA report said that biotechnology offers "very real sources ofcompetitive advantage which U.K. industry cannot afford to ignore."The report highlights novel waste processing systems, innovative lowcost materials with reduced environmental impact, such asbiodegradable plastics, low cost diagnostic kits for use as qualitychecks in food processing for example, and new ways of improvingquality, including treating wood pulp with enzymes before paper-making.

PA concluded that companies that ignore the opportunities offered bybiotechnology "will be at a competitive disadvantage in worldmarkets."

Following the PA study, the DTI commissioned Watson Biomedicalto conduct an in-depth survey of manufacturing companies. Thatreport _ User Group Research Report _ revealed a lack oftechnical awareness relating to biotechnology and warns that this is"a potential threat to maintaining competitive edge."

The study found a number of key factors that differentiate theenvironmental sector from the biopharmaceuticals industry. Inparticular, a lack of information was "clearly a barrier to the adoptionof new technology." n

-- Michael Kenward Special To BioWorld Today

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.