Bioprocess engineering could generate $50 billion in annualsales worldwide in the year 2,000, according to a studyreleased last week by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).And the U.S. can grab a big piece of that pie, or it can conductbusiness as usual and miss out, according to the study, "PuttingBiotechnology to Work: Bioprocess Engineering."

The total federal investment in bioprocessing for fiscal year1992 was only $99 million, "small in proportion to itspotential," according to the Federal Coordinating Council forScience, Engineering and Technology (FCCSET). Additionally, theU.S. is "lagging on the connection between basic discoveries andcommercialization," T. Kent Kirk, a member of the NAScommittee on bioprocess engineering, told BioWorld. "Othercountries have the edge because they have these very tightlyconnected."

In fact, the committee found that Japan leads in appliedmicrobiology and biocatalysis, and is effectively coordinatinggovernment, industrial and academic resources, while Europehas similar strengths.

The lack of interest in bioprocessing in the U.S. to date stems atleast in part from the fact that today's biopharmaceuticals arehigh-value, low-volume products, not the high-volume, low-value products that are the backbone of bioprocessing. Forinstance, the annual U.S. production of recombinanterythropoietin, valued at $840,000 per gram, "would probablyfit in a small glass," explained Michael Ladisch, chairman of theNAS committee.

In its report, the committee did find that the situation ischanging. "The emerging families of food, agricultural products,and industrial chemicals to be generated by biological routes,as well as the biopharmaceutical products now in development,will have markets measured in thousands of kilograms, ormore, and will require innovative manufacturing techniques,"said Ladisch.

In fact, the opportunities for development of bioprocessing areplentiful, including "specialty products, industrial chemicals,value-added products from agriculture and forestry-basedmaterials, reduction of toxic chemicals by pulping, and liquidand gaseous fuels from renewable resources," he added.

Additionally, biotechnology might make it possible to recyclecurrently non-usable cellulose into such products as ethanoland biodegradable plastics, "helping the environment andcreating jobs," said Ladisch.

To take advantage of these emerging opportunities -- and tobecome a world-player in bioprocessing -- the committeerecommended:

-- A coordinated, long-term plan of research, development,training, and education in bioprocess engineering, with well-defined goals that involve participation of industry, academiaand the federal government.

-- A research and educational program in bioprocessengineering that emphasizes cross-disciplinary interactionsbetween scientists and engineers and a multidisciplinary teamapproach to problem solving.

-- An extension of federal funding of research in biotechnologyto support efforts that provide the science and technology basefor producing and manufacturing products from biology.

-- A major commitment to developing the human resourcesbase through funding of research programs in universities, aswell as of research directed toward industrial problems,sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the NationalInstitutes of Health, the Department of Energy and theDepartment of Agriculture.

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

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