Biotech and the global burden of disease

| July 19, 2015 | 0 Comments

With rapidly increasing consumer awareness, only those technologies will survive in the future that would bring a definable and desirable benefit to the consumer, or help people or government to achieve significant progress. This would be true of biotechnology as of, say, space or new energy targets.

One area where humanity expects a great contribution from biotechnology is in respect of management of disease—that is, reducing the global burden of disease. What, then, is this global burden of disease? Following a recent study (Ezzati et al., The Lancet, 2002, Vol. 360, pp.1347-1360), this burden can now be stated in precise terms.

The above study used data collected from 192 countries around the world. The factors listed in Table 1 were identified as the main causative factors for the diseases mentioned against each factor, different countries contributing to a different extent to the total global disease burden on account of a particular factor.

The question we may ask is, where and how can biotechnology contribute to alleviate global suffering on account of the 26 factors mentioned in Table 1. This contribution could be towards prevention of, better and more expedient diagnosis of, and/or cure for a disease. Let me give examples.

To take care of vitamin A deficiency mentioned under item 3 in table 1, we need to be able to provide cheap natural beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, which could be used in mid-day meal program in schools. Shantha Marine is already making inexpensive beta-carotene using a marine algae, seawater and sunlight, in their factory in Tiruchendur, TamilNadu. This is an example of how marine biotechnology can provide inexpensive material to take care of one important global burden of disease. However, this is also an example where it is not only the availability of the material but also a concurrent systems approach on part of the government which would ensure that this material is actually appropriately used, that would be important.

Monoclonal antibodies (MABs) have proved invaluable as agents of diagnosis of a large number of diseases or for determining the genetic susceptibility status of an individual in respect of a disease. It is a pity that, as of now, not a single monoclonal antibody of Indian origin is in the market. We not only need to fill in this lacuna but also develop newer MABs for diagnosis of disorders that are common for us.

Preventive vaccines for diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis represent another major need of the time. The production of these vaccines through innovative modern biotechnological routes grounded in imaginative basic research, alone would make them possible and economically feasible.

Those interested in biotechnology and medical health care would be doing a tremendous service if they could collectively prepare a document which would state how biotechnology could reduce the global burden of disease, through development of specific preventive, diagnostic and curative regimens, I believe that BioSpectrum is the right vehicle for starting a debate on the above question: that is, how could we, individually and collectively, have biotechnology discharge the above responsibility.

PM Bhargava

Reference: Biotech and the global burden of disease. Pushpa M Bhargava, BioSpectrum, Jan.2004, p.32.

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