Academia Sinica paves way for Taiwan’s biotech industry
Source： Taiwan Today
photo: Wong Chi-huey, head of Academia Sinica, expects research and development efforts backed by the institution to help upgrade Taiwan’s biotechnology industry. (Staff photo/Chen Mei-ling)
Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s top research institution, has maintained a reputation as a powerhouse in the production of leading scholars and cutting-edge research for over 80 years.
In the 21st century, however, its president sees the institution’s mission as broader than ever before, with direct participation in practical applications.
“Research generates the greatest benefit for humanity when it is transformed into products that common people can use,” Wong Chi-huey told Taiwan Today July 11.
A specialist in synthetic chemistry and biocatalysis, Wong speaks from experience. He has created several important vaccines, including the world’s first breast cancer vaccine developed with glycoprotein technology. The drug, currently in the final stages of clinical trials in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, is expected to be ready for the market within two to three years.
“The practical benefits of a study are more important than any accolades it may receive,” said Wong, who has been directing Academia Sinica since 2006.
The institute has been an incubator for advanced studies in areas ranging from stem cells, DNA sequencing and atomic sciences to history, literature and linguistics. It is in the vanguard of promoting Taiwan’s biotechnology sector, named one of the six emerging industries by the government in 2009.
A Cabinet-level action plan will boost biotech development through the establishment of the Taiwan Medtech Fund, an NT$60 billion (US$2.08 billion) joint public-private venture capital company; the Supra Incubation Center to provide patent consulting services and market analysis; and the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration (TFDA), which will bring the country’s pharmaceutical sector in line with international standards.
Wong believes the five-year program will serve as the desperately needed connection between research and production. “Taiwan’s higher education and research institutions have exhibited stunning potential in biotech research, and the action plan aims to transform exciting discoveries into marketable products,” he said.
Pharmaceutical innovation could be the engine for the entire biotech sector, Wong stressed. As new drugs are developed, he explained, other aspects of the industry, such as instrument manufacturers, lab testing facilities and standardization developers will be mobilized as a result.
“Once a brand-name drug becomes successful, the royalties collected worldwide can provide robust backing for drug developers, making them self-sustaining, provided that a strong support mechanism for researchers is in place.”
Chang Tse-wen, an antibody engineering expert at Academia Sinica’s Genomics Research Center, presents a case in point with his anti-allergy drug Xolair, approved in the U.S. and EU in 2003 and 2005, respectively, for treating severe allergic asthma.
The journey to such success is so long, however, that it will intimidate any research team without solid backing. “It took us 16 years to take the drug from a lab concept to a marketable product,” Chang said. “But it was all worthwhile, as our brainchild is now actually helping patients.”
According to Wong, at least 60 new drugs developed by Taiwanese companies are undergoing clinical testing, with 30 complying with U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards. These efforts include an antibody for HIV by TaiMed Biologics Inc. and antibiotics targeting cancer by TaiGen Biotechnology Co. Ltd. Numerous new drugs coming from Taiwan should appear on the market in the next few years, he said.
Wong believes such drug development efforts will enjoy better resources as the government moves to provide a more encouraging environment, a key part of which will be a biotech park proposed by Academia Sinica.
To facilitate a cluster effect for drug development, which typically consists of drug discovery, preclinical research and clinical trials on humans, the new park adjacent to the institute in Taipei’s Nangang District is set to become headquarters for key participants in drug discovery and testing.
Sitting on a 25-hectare section of what used to be the No. 202 Munitions Works Plant, the park, slated to open in 2017, will be home to Taiwan’s leading research in translational medicine—the process of converting pharmaceutical discoveries into products that actually cure patients or prevent diseases.
Representative offices of the National Science Council, Ministry of Economic Affairs, National Laboratory Animal Center and TFDA, under the Department of Health, will provide on-site support for the NT$22.5 billion initiative, Wong said.
“We are working to build a biotech park that harbors innovation and creativity, rather than a string of biotech factories that copy and produce the same generic drugs,” he said.
Given the biodiversity in the park and its surroundings, totaling over 180 hectares, preservation is another concern the institute values. “Office buildings will take up merely 9.6 hectares, and we plan to rehabilitate the entire area, which used to be wetlands,” Wong said. “We seek to create the most benefits for humans and the natural environment.”
The plans to help drug companies will also lead to an environment more conducive to the cultivation of biotech talent. “People with key expertise are crucial to a knowledge-based industry such as biotechnology,” Wong said.
“Only when the industry chain is fully integrated and supported will the best brains have a stage to shine on,” he said, stressing that people are the most important asset for building Taiwan’s biotech future.