Biotech breakthroughs promise to save millions of lives per year; Experts call for global body to better use knowledge worldwide
New medical tools that quickly and accurately diagnose diseases like AIDS and malaria top a list of 10 biotech breakthroughs deemed most important for improving health in developing countries within the decade, science that will dramatically move the world towards its Millennium Development Goals for 2015, according to scientists and ethicists in a major new report to the United Nations.
Newly emerged diagnostic tools detect illness at a molecular level in blood or tissues -- thus improving a patient’s chance of survival, conserving scarce resources in poor countries now wasted on inappropriate treatments, and better containing disease outbreaks, according to Genomics and Global Health, being launched Oct. 7 at the 4th World Conference of Science Journalists in Montreal.
If not properly harnessed, the experts warn, the breakthroughs being produced through genomics will dramatically widen rather than narrow the gap between developed and developing countries.
"Millions of people in developing countries die each year from diseases that could be prevented or treated cheaply and easily through the development and use of a handful of biotechnologies," says Dr. Singer. "This report is about reaching the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), mobilizing the developed countries of the world to share its wealth of information and know-how, and supporting the innovation of developing countries."
10 Promising New Technologies Can Help World Achieve Its MDGs
Funded by Genome Canada’s GE3LS program and others , the report details the potential contribution of genomics and related biotechnologies in achieving five of the eight MDGs.
It notes genomics-related technologies, including DNA sequencing and bioinformatics, once so costly only wealthy nations could afford them, are now becoming available to many in developing countries. Some applications are now so simple and cheap they can start replacing older, cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive health care technologies in poorer countries.
The 10 most promising cutting-edge technologies for health in developing countries:
"In the long run such emerging technologies tend to help people in developing countries more than in developed countries," says co-author Abdallah S. Daar, MD, co-director of the Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health at the JCB.
"A good example is vaccines, which have always depended on biotechnology and were initially expensive, but in the end helped save millions of lives in the developing world where the majority of humanity lives. With a commitment to international cooperation and a relatively modest financial investment, we can make substantial gains in the battle against a suite of the world’s deadliest diseases."
Global Genomics Initiative
"Every year 11 million children die before reaching their 5th birthday," says co-author Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former UN Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. "Recent rapid advances in genomics and related biotechnologies offer radically improved tools to help remedy such global tragedies. But either they’re not being used or they’re not accessible. "We need a governance mechanism that fosters a balance between the global public goods characteristics of genomics knowledge and the private goods nature of its application."
The report calls for creation of a Global Genomics Initiative (GGI), promoting genomics as a "global public good" and enlisting governments, private companies and other organizations from developed and developing countries alike to support genomics research and learning worldwide.
The GGI would give developing countries access to knowledge essential to their reaping the benefits of genomics for development. It would promote actions needed at a global level, strengthen capacity in biotechnology worldwide by increasing the international exchange of know-how, and encourage partnerships between countries.
Key Actors: Developing Countries Themselves
"Countries such as India, China, Cuba and Brazil that already have genomics and health biotech capacity set the example for others are best positioned to take advantage of the genomics revolution," says co-author Halla Thorsteinsdottir.
Cuba, for example, has invested heavily since the 1980’s in research infrastructure and manufacturing in biotechnology. The country has produced several successful products, including the world’s only Meningitis B vaccine. It also holds at least 400 patents in the biotechnology field. The biotechnology sector has already contributed towards improved health in the country and is poised to become a major export industry in Cuba.
The report says education is key to creating National Systems of Innovation (NSIs) in biotechnology in developing countries and active research and commercialisation of research are needed to promote sustainable development in this field. These countries need to:
Says co-author Tara Acharya: "With this report we try to illustrate the importance of investing in new tools for health and development in order to complement existing technologies and energize the field of global health."
The report says most governments in developing countries and the international donor community have seriously underestimated the value of investing in health. The Commission on Macroeconomics and Health estimates that approximately 330 million disability-adjusted life years (one disability-adjusted life-year is defined as the loss of one year of healthy life to disease) could be saved for every 8 million deaths prevented, generating economic benefit of US$186 billion per year as of 2015. This would require additional annual health outlays, for all low-income countries and selected middle-income countries, of US $57 billion by 2007 and US $94 billion by 2015."
Harvard University professor Calestous Juma, Co-ordinator of the Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation of the UN Millennium Project commissioned by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, called the contribution "a pioneering report that will shape the way leaders around the world think about the role of new technologies in solving old problems. Its clarity is only matched by its practical approach."
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