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A Perfect Marriage Between Bioscience And IT

Not long ago, it was the dotcom companies. Today, the buzz is in biotechnology and life sciences.

Touted as the gold mine for the next decade, public and private investors all over Asia are pumping in billions of dollars in an effort to keep up with growth expected in the biotech industry.

According to IDC, Korea is expected to see the largest growth in life sciences based on the sheer size of investment being pumped into the industry - US$10.8 billion by 2008. In Singapore, the government will be injecting US$2.5 billion toward plans to make the country Asia's biotech and life sciences hub. Australia already has over 200 listed biotech companies and currently holds the lead in research successes and drug approvals. By 2006, it is expected to be the second largest bioscience economy in Asia Pacific.

One thing's for sure - Asia wants to be at the forefront of life sciences.

IT, The Great Enabler
Previously, the process of research and development and slow product time-to-market had caused investors to turn away.

According to Dr. Gurinder Shahi, Chairman of BioEnterprise Asia, "the traditional approach to drug discovery and development is a long and drawn out process that could take 3-5 years or longer, and depends more on serendipity and is limited by often non-standardized, unsystematic and highly inefficient and even random processes."

That's not all. The pre-clinical and thereafter clinical testing stages could also take just as long.

The high risks and possible low, if any, returns also made it easy for investors to turn away. Philip Fersht, IDC Asia Pacific's Director of Bio-IT and Life Sciences, says success in bioscience had a one in 33,000 chance of success and one in five percent chance from inception to market launch.

However, with the help of technology, bioscience has seen rapid advancement and its growth potential is still enormous.

And there lies the pot of gold. "All these processes are ripe for a total rethink so they can systematically be telescoped into much quicker development cycles and less inefficient and random approaches," says Shahi.

He adds that there are already some companies that have come up with new and innovative ways to "short-circuit" drug discovery and development using smart lab-science and the best that bio-IT has to offer for computer-based analysis and molecular simulation.

In doing so, Shahi says, "we can go from identification of a drug target to generation of optimized candidate drugs in 3-4 months rather than the 3-5 years it normally takes."

Fersht also believes that IT will be the enabler to bring about the vast majority of business and scientific advances in the bioscience industry. He says: "IT provides the necessary and essential tools to create, organize, analyze, store, retrieve and share genomic, proteomic, chemical and clinical data in the life sciences."

The Road Ahead
Most experts agree that the bioscience economy in Asia Pacific is still in its infancy, leaving vast opportunities waiting to be tapped. Market capitalization of all biotech firms in Asia today is estimated to be less than five percent that of the top 25 US companies, according to Shahi.

So how can the bioscience potential be realized? An environment of partnership between government, industry and academia should be established before a country can hope to reap the benefits of a flourishing life sciences/biotech economy, Shahi says.

Also, the continued development of IT systems will undoubtedly augment biosciences in future. Fersht believes that bioscience creates a middleware, hardware, services and networking opportunity for IT companies, and sees that by 2006, storage will represent the single largest element of bio-IT spending, accounting for US$1.1 billion, and server clusters following closely with US$1 billion and services at US$794 million.

There will also be a higher demand for high performance computing systems. In addition to this, Shahi adds that there is a clear benefit to be derived from the development of better knowledge and database management, integration systems as well as from the development of virtual reality tools for molecular modeling and simulations.

The apparent optimism surrounding bioscience could bode very well for the rapid development of bio-IT.