Squidsquatch. A new interview every day. A single question. The subject one day becomes interviewer the next.
Chris Lawson: Nick, you’re a biotechnology reporter. What’s the difference between biotech in the real world and biotech in fiction?
Nick Evans: Time and money, fundamentally.
In fiction, technology tends to be sprung on the reader fully formed, and I think that SF is just as guilty of this as any other fiction. The technology is there to be dealt with by the protagonists, either to move the plot along, or form part of the mirror SF writers are holding up to our own culture. But it is generally just there, and very little fiction, in my experience, accurately reflects the true process of getting technology out into the general community.
The reality for people working in the biotech field is that commercialising a discovery is complicated and expensive. It takes ten to twelve years and between US$300 million and US$1 billion to get a new medical discovery to market, if it ever gets there (the general estimate is that fewer than 1% of discoveries make it from the lab to the pharmacy shelf). It maybe takes less time for industrial and agricultural applications of biotech, but the time and money involved is still significant.
Scientists and companies working to commercialise biotech discoveries spend most of their working lives negotiating regulatory process – demonstrating the safety and efficacy of their discovery to the TGA (in Australia), or the US FDA, or any of the equivalent regulators around the world. And those people in biotech companies that aren’t involved in the clinical or regulatory research are probably spending most of their time worrying about how they’re going to raise the money to conduct the next round of trials for the products in their pipeline.
The second major difference worth noting is how specific and incremental discoveries in real science are: nobody is working on a cure for cancer, for example.
They’re working on a treatment for hepatocellular carcinoma (primary liver cancer), or a vascular disrupting agent for the treatment of some solid tumours, or a topical lotion to treat actinic keratosis (pre-cancerous sunspots) – or a stem cell treatment to speed the healing of long bone fractures, or a CCR5 inhibitor to target the half dozen strains of HIV that are developing resistance to current treatments. All of these are things that Australian biotech companies are currently working on, and none of them are going to fundamentally change the world overnight, even assuming they get out into the marketplace.
Fiction tends to treat science with a broad brush – ‘well, we have stem cell technology now, so let’s look at how that might change our world.’ And that’s fair enough, it makes for better stories, I suspect. I couldn’t imagine that a book about the struggle to raise working capital in a small Melbourne-based biotech would find many readers, to be honest. But it’s also probably worth reflecting, occasionally, on the fact that the real business of getting scientific discoveries into our lives is a lot more expensive, time consuming and messy than most people realise.
Nick Evans is the editor of biotechnologynews.net, an online news service dedicated to the business of biotechnology in Australia. While primarily a finance and health journalist, he also freelances as a beer writer to keep himself sane.