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ASPI’s critical tech tracker updates: biotechnology and the tight race towards the top

Posted By and on September 22, 2023 @ 10:45

Biotechnology is one of the world’s biggest industries with a global market share estimated at over US$1.37 trillion (A$2.1tn) in 2022. The massive investment driven by the Covid-19 pandemic has helped boost the market to an estimated annual growth rate of around 14%, putting the expected value of the industry at US$2.44tn (A$3.8tn) by 2028.

ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker update shows the intense competition between the United States and China in the sector which, along with artificial intelligence, is anticipated to deliver some of the most life-changing technologies over the coming decades.

The update adds four new technologies to the biotechnologies category: novel antibiotics and antivirals, genome and genetic sequencing and analysis, genetic engineering and nuclear medicine and radiotherapy. They join three existing fields in the tracker: vaccines and medical countermeasures, synthetic biology and biological manufacturing.

Our table collates the aggregated percentage of top 10% of highly cited papers in the different biotechnologies for different country groupings.

Of the four new fields, the US leads high-impact research in genetic engineering and nuclear medicine and radiotherapy, while China is ahead in genome and genetic sequencing and analysis, and novel antibiotics and antivirals. Among the previously reported biotech fields, China leads in biological manufacturing and synthetic biology and the US leads in vaccines and medical countermeasures.

In contrast to advanced sensors, the focus of our previous Strategist piece based on the tracker update, high-impact research in biotechnology is strong enough across likeminded nations that the leads established by China would be surmountable through joint efforts by the US and partners such as through the AUKUS agreement or with collaboration with Japan, South Korea and European nations in some combination.

The notable and worrying exception is synthetic biology, in which China produces 52.4% of high impact research and has nine of the top ten ranked institutions, giving the field a high monopoly risk rating. China’s strong performance in synthetic biology is almost twice the percentage of the AUKUS alliance combined with South Korea and Japan. This would be hard to beat even with a multilateral alliance including Europe. Irrespective of technology monopoly risks, the biotechnologies involving gene manipulation need international cooperation on the ethical issues and consensus on appropriate norms to minimise potential biohazard risks.

Synthetic biology is perhaps the most nascent of the biotechnologies and, as an emerging technology on par with quantum, is an area of interest for China with funded research at several institutions including CAS. The field involves redesigning living organisms into ones with new functions with applications in medicine, manufacturing and agriculture. The main distinction between synthetic biology and genome editing is that compared to genome editing, synthetic biology can involve the insertion of longer sections of DNA with the possibility of creating an entirely different organism like a recoded E. Coli.

Lab grown meat is another example of synthetic biology, as is engineering of stem cells into mini robots. Thus, synthetic biology, especially when engendering artificial lifeforms, must be regulated like genome editing and AI with multilateral expert input on where regulations would benefit from a US-Sino dialogue.

Biotechnology encompasses technologies that integrate biology and engineering into new products and processes leading to improved outcomes in health, manufacturing and society. The financial incentives to gain advantage in the sector are enormous given most countries spend more than 6% of the annual gross domestic product on healthcare, which accounts for more than 50% of the biotech industry.

Reflecting the importance governments are attributing to the industry, the United States, Australia, India and Japan are renewing their national biotechnology strategies.

China has listed biotechnology as one of its seven strategic emerging industries in 2010. In its 13th Five-Year plan (2016-2020), China’s Ministry of Science and Technology released a comprehensive biotechnology development plan.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought vaccines and medical countermeasures to the forefront. The US has an exceptionally strong lead in this technology with eight of the top institutions being US-based (with the University of California system as the top research institution).

The Critical Tech Tracker reveals the strong performance of the Middle Eastern countries of Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in novel antibiotics and antivirals. The development of novel antibiotics and antivirals is important both in treating and suppressing infection and diseases. Antibiotics are used not only to treat infections but also to suppress secondary infection during surgeries, thus saving millions of lives. However, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in the modern world have given rise to drug resistant infections that cannot be treated. Antibiotic resistance is a global threat not only to human health but also to food security, due to its widespread use in animal husbandry and fish farming. The World Health Organisation has called for action to formulate, strengthen and implement policies and procedures to tackle this crisis at all levels.

The University of California is the top institution in three of seven biotechnologies, with a strong lead in both genetic engineering and genome and genetic sequencing. The most significant breakthrough in the two interconnected technologies is the CRISPR gene editing technique pioneered at the University of California Berkeley by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier (2020 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry). The CRISPR-Cas9 technique is set to revolutionise biomedicine, notably the treatment of genetic diseases, by deleting a section of DNA or turning off the gene causing the disease.

Genetic editing and engineering are biotechnologies fraught with ethical concerns, especially when applied to the human genome. There are high-level risks associated with gene editing. For example, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique is not error-proof as the process can insert or delete DNA letters at the points of insertion, potentially leading to a mixture of different versions of the edited cell. The possibility of developing a severely sick baby or a Frankenstein-like monster is no longer far-fetched.

A 2019 report on CRISPR in China has shown that the US is ahead of China by a fingernail on the number of CRISPR patent applications and China catching up on publication numbers and citations.

The tech tracker analysis shows immense competition between China and the US. For example, the US is ahead of China in genetic engineering and China is ahead in genome and genetic sequencing. China’s research in these biotechnologies has focused on agriculture, specifically transgenic crops and animal organs for human transplant. Unsurprisingly, the tech tracker data in these two biotechnologies shows the prominence of agricultural universities as well as biomedical institutes, hospitals and cancer treatment institutions. The established link between cancer and genes has made CRISPR an invaluable tool for cancer research and treatment.

Biological manufacturing, commonly known as biomanufacturing, is defined as processes that incorporate living cells in the commercial production of biomaterials and biomolecules (for use in medicine). China and the US are in first and second place respectively, while India is in third place and has two top-ranked institutions with the Indian Institute of Technology edging ahead of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and the Indian NIT securing the third place. India has had a national biotechnology development strategy since 2000 with continuous renewal strategies since, and it aims to become a Global Biomanufacturing Hub by 2025. 

The technologies led by the US are not an immediate threat to Australia with its multilateral alliances in the Quad and AUKUS. The aggregated percentage for a Quad and South Korea alliance outranks China for novel antibiotics and antivirals and biomanufacturing. In the China led biotechnologies (other than synthetic biology), a Quad and South Korea alliance can reverse China’s dominance, with the AUKUS, Japan and South Korea alliance performing the best in genome and genetic sequencing. Our analysis also shows that in the aggregation of the seven biotechnologies, China (27.0%) has a slight lead over the US (25.2%) followed by the United Kingdom (4.2%), Germany (4.1%) and India (4.1%).

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[1] global market share: https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/biotechnology-market

[2] Critical Technology Tracker update : https://ad-aspi.s3.ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/2023-09/Tech%20Tracker%20Top%2010%20Snapshot%20Sept%202023.pdf?VersionId=EmVI5bUHiFRdSbzUYErK4_thCONxoUvX

[3] our previous Strategist piece based on the tracker update: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/aspis-critical-tech-tracker-update-chinas-lead-in-advanced-sensors-is-overwhelming/

[4] China: https://www.synbiobeta.com/read/the-rapid-growth-of-synthetic-biology-in-china

[5] several institutions including CAS: https://www.uscc.gov/research/chinas-biotechnology-development-role-us-and-other-foreign-engagement

[6] field: https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/policy-issues/Synthetic-Biology#:~:text=Synthetic%20biology%20is%20a%20field,in%20medicine%2C%20manufacturing%20and%20agriculture.

[7] recoded E. Coli: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1192-5

[8] Lab grown meat: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lab-grown-meat-approved-for-sale-what-you-need-to-know/

[9] mini robots: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/29/americas/xenobots-self-replicating-robots-scn/index.html

[10] US-Sino dialogue: https://www.brookings.edu/articles/chinas-role-in-the-global-biotechnology-sector-and-implications-for-us-policy/

[11] United States: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Bold-Goals-for-U.S.-Biotechnology-and-Biomanufacturing-Harnessing-Research-and-Development-To-Further-Societal-Goals-FINAL.pdf

[12] India: https://dbtindia.gov.in/sites/default/files/NATIONAL%20BIOTECHNOLOGY%20DEVELOPMENT%20STRATEGY_01.04.pdf

[13] Japan: https://www.keidanren.or.jp/en/policy/2023/015_proposal.html#:~:text=In%20Japan%2C%20the%20government%20started,advanced%20bioeconomy%20society%20by%202030.

[14] biotechnology development plan: http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2016-03/17/content_5054992.htm

[15] World Health Organisation: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antibiotic-resistance

[16] crisis: https://www.science.org/content/article/bad-news-paxlovid-coronavirus-can-find-multiple-ways-evade-covid-19-drug

[17] fraught with ethical concerns: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-00756-0

[18] applied to the human genome: https://www.science.org/content/article/creator-crispr-babies-nears-release-prison-where-does-embryo-editing-stand

[19] US is ahead of China by a fingernail: https://www.science.org/content/article/its-crispr-revolution-china-becomes-world-leader-genome-editing

[20] invaluable tool for cancer research and treatment: https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2020/crispr-cancer-research-treatment