SCIENCE TRIBUNE Thursday, April 3, 2003, Chandigarh, India
 


Biotechnology: the next big thing
H.S. Jatana
I
NSIDE Biogen Inc.ís sprawling biotech manufacturing complex, no noisy cutting or grinding tools pierce the air, only the hum of air-conditioning. In the making of the companyís multiple sclerosis drug, cell culture grow in stainless-steel tanks called bioreactors.

PROF YASH PALUNDERSTANDING THE UNIVERSE
WITH PROF YASH PAL

Why does a heated glass tube crack when we throw a few drops of water on it?

Ordinary glass expands when heated. This happens to most materials. Glass is a poor conductor of heat. It is also brittle, meaning it would rather break than bend. 

NEW PRODUCTS & DISCOVERIES

 
Top








 

Biotechnology: the next big thing
H.S. Jatana

INSIDE Biogen Inc.ís sprawling biotech manufacturing complex, no noisy cutting or grinding tools pierce the air, only the hum of air-conditioning. In the making of the companyís multiple sclerosis drug, cell culture grow in stainless-steel tanks called bioreactors. As they expand over 30 days, the cultures are transferred to progressively bigger tanks, the largest with a nearly 4,000-gallon capacity.

In much the same way, Americaís next New Economy of the late 1990s.

With industry swimming in a glut of capacity to produce goods, the climate for another technology-driven economic expansion is harsher than it has been in years. Amid todayís uncertainties, companies are hesitant to invest heavily in technology to rejuvenate the economy, although they have added modestly to their investments in recent months.

Yet the nationís technological prowess is hard to keep down. The biotechnology industry, now a quarter-century old, holds promise of exciting new breakthroughs in medicine and agriculture and job growth in the future. The internet survived the bubble economy and is still growing steadily, creating jobs and income. And many analysts see the battered information technology sector making a strong comeback, perhaps in a year or two.

Scientists and businesses also are excited about nanotechnology, the development of products and applications at the atomic and molecular level that could revolutionise a broad range of industries. Tiny medical devices and sensors with military and civilian uses are among some of the first applications under study, but development is still years away.

At the moment, financing new technological advancement has become a problem in a slow economy saddled with too much capacity.

Money is scarce for entrepreneurs, but some new ideas are getting financing. Venture capital funds that played such a large role in financing the dot-com bubble are as stingy today as they were generous during the boom. Banks are equally hard-nosed about lending for new investments.

Venture capitalists claim they have not checked out. They say they are just more discriminating now after getting burned by the dot-com bust. Bon French, head of Adams Street Partners, a Chicago firm that invests in venture capital funds, said that "in 1999 and 2000, there were too many me-too ideas funded." Now, he said, venture capital funding is back to normal after an unrealistic surge during the boom.

Silicon Valley in California has been slammed by the slowdown, as have other high-tech areas like Austin, Texas, northern Virginia in the Dulles Airport corridor, and a lesser extent Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

The development of new technology has not encountered such a harsh environment in years. Half a million information technology employees have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2001. Rehiring has been slow. Investors looking for "the next big thing" in technology may have to wait for some promising new technologies to develop more completely, such as nanotechnology. New biotech drugs are rapidly being produced, but analysts say the industry has yet to realise its full potential of developing a broad range of "designer drugs" for specific ailments. Many young biotech startup companies, where new therapies are often discovered, are struggling for survival.

"Right now, weíre between the big things," said Allan Cohen, a business professor at Babson College in Massachusetts. There have been now new "killer applications in the software world. Faster computers and more sophisticated cellular phones represent incremental changes in existing technology. The telecommunications industry is stuck with huge overcapacity after it laid too much high-speed fiber optic cable during the boom.

Julian Lange, another Babson professor who was co-founder of a company that developed the first electronic spreadsheet, Visicalc, said the slowdown in technology sales may be explained by revolutionary changes in technology in just a few years. So much new stuff has been thrown at consumers that they are suffering sort of a technological indigestion, he said.

Yet not all is gloomy. Amid the rubble of the "tech wreck" that swept over the dot-com industry, there are some bright spots. Biotechnology, especially in the fast-growing medical field, is one of them.

Such words are music to the ears of the unemployed in these days of corporate retrenchment. By 2005, the company plans to more than double its 400-strong manufacturing workforce in Research Triangle Park, the areaís high-tech nerve centre. Larger expansions are planned on a 176-acre site over the next 20 years. In Cambridge, Mass., Gregoire said that, if anything, the company is under capacity with several biotech drug products under development, including a new cancer therapy.

At the Biogen manufacturing facility in North Carolina, laid-off telecommunications and information technology workers often apply for jobs, and some get hired.

North Carolina is one of the nationís leaders in developing a biotechnology industry, thanks to the presence of three major research institutions in the Raleigh-Durham area-Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina. But competition is growing over which region will gain dominance in biotechnology.

Leslie Alexandre, president and chief executive of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, said only a few areas in the United States will be able to develop a strong biotech industry. "There are going to be only a few centers of excellence that will, in the long term, survive," she said.

In addition to research and manufacturing in North Carolina, she said, the state is pushing greater use of what she called bio-informatics, a discipline to use supercomputers to "mine" all the unused data developed in clinical trials. By marrying the computer and biotechnology, she said, scientists may make discoveries that lead to new therapies.

Janice Bourque, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, said the number of biotech jobs in Massachusetts could rise from 39,000 to 150,000 over the next decade if the state got behind a coordinated plan with business. If not, she said, it could lose jobs to other states that have become more aggressive in developing biotech industry.

The struggling information technology sector faces a rockier road than biotechnology, but its revival is extremely important to the US economy, simply because it is so pervasive and employs so many people. And many analysts believe the time is approaching for more growth in this key area.

There are nearly 10 million workers in information technology in the United States, while biotechnology employment is barely approaching 200,000. In the Boston area, the statistics tell a compelling story. There are 29,000 biotechnology workers employed, and there are 29,000 unemployed information technology workers.

Despite the dot-com bust, the Internet has not gone away; in fact, usage has grown. W. Bowman Cutter, managing director of Warburg-Pincus Venture Capital, predicted a major expansion of Internet services in three to five years as new sophisticated software is developed that will permit corporations to track all aspects of their businesses and fill orders based on the tastes of consumers.

It is going to allow for mass customisation. You will be able to completely design your next car. You can order to your specifications on line, and it will automatically go on the assembly line. That car will be produced just for you.

All this will create more demand for information technology workers if the business develops as Cutter believes, but so many workers and businesses have ben through rough times that they arenít ready to predict a new boom.

Many analysts said the information technology sector will come back strong because of obsolescence. In the computer world, this has meant that every two or three years, companies and many individuals buy replacements as both the speed and power of computers improve.

But there is some question whether consumers will continue to be as eager to buy new computers so quickly.

Inside research labs in North Carolina and across the country, scientists are working in the exciting new field of nanotechnology to develop devices and applications at the atomic and molecular level. If its promise is fulfilled, new products could be developed in a broad range of industries, said Carto Segre, physics professor at Illinois Institute of Technology. Manufacturing could be revolutionised, he said, by adapting smaller machines into the production process.

Among the new products being discussed are tiny sensors that could have a wide variety of applications, including military ones. In fact, said Jerry Bemholc, physics professor at North Carolina State, nanotechnology could help make remote-control drone planes smaller and more sophisticated. Clothing could be developed using technology that would block chemical or biological weapons from touching the skin, he said.

"America is ahead, but on the other hand, the Japanese and Europeans are moving very strongly," Bernholc said. "This is going to be a global technology, where we definitely would be at the forefront. But there is not a large gap behind us".

It could be 10 to 15 years before nanotechnology takes off as an industry and there could be applications in medicine and microelectronics, even in biotechnology.

RTI International in Durham is working on a new technology that if says could shrink the size and power demand of air-conditioning and also would use heat from a carís catalytic converter to help power the vehicle.

Ironically, new technology these days is developed and turned into a product in the USA, but production of the technology is moving offshore faster than ever. It happened with cellular telephones is less than a decade, and it could happen with the new products under study now in the nanotechlonlogy field.

ó The author is with Semi-conductor Complex, Ministry of Information Technology.
Top

 

UNDERSTANDING THE UNIVERSE
WITH PROF YASH PAL

Why does a heated glass tube crack when we throw a few drops of water on it?

Ordinary glass expands when heated. This happens to most materials. Glass is a poor conductor of heat. It is also brittle, meaning it would rather break than bend. When we throw some water on the hot glass tube, the portion of the tube on which the water droplet falls is suddenly cooled and wants to contract. This produces larges stresses and breaks the glass. If glass were a good conductor of heat, the spot where the water droplet falls would not cool that much because heat from the neighbouring areas would quickly flow in. If it were not brittle it would only have a dent and a break would be avoided.

It should be pointed out that special varieties of glass have been prepared that have a low coefficient of thermal expansion. Many pieces of equipment and instruments made of such low thermal expansion glass are needed in several scientific and technological applications. They are specially needed for making mirrors of large astronomical telescopes. A telescope mirror made of glass, being rather thick, may not break due to slight differential heating, but it would certainly deform. This would seriously impair the telescope performance. The basic starting point in glass making is usually limestone, sodium carbonate and sand - heated together to a high temperature. Normal glass is a mixture of calcium and sodium silicates. Special very low expansion materials are prepared using combinations of lithium, aluminum and silicon oxides.

Unlike other fires we cannot extinguish a petrol fire easily by pouring water on it. Why?

I started thinking about this only after I received your question. I believe the reason for the difference might be the following. A fire flame is produced when the vapour of a combustible gas mixes with oxygen at high temperature. In the case of coal, wood or a candle the combustible gas is produced through the heating of coal, wood or the wax of the candle. If I cool down the coal, wood or the wick of the candle by pouring water, the source of the combustible gas gets throttled and the fire is extinguished. However the case of petrol fire is different. Petrol is volatile and you can smell its vapour even at normal room temperature. Petrol is also lighter than water. Pouring water on petrol does not bottle up the vapour, which then continues to feed the fire above. Oxygen is always available. Therefore, one has to find ways of cutting off the oxygen supply. We have to choke the fire. Some times this is done by setting off explosions, which suck out a lot of oxygen from the vicinity of the fire! For ordinary sized fires simpler ways of choking might be used, for example covering the fire with a thick blanket.
Top

Home

NEW PRODUCTS & DISCOVERIES

Cosmic rays to detect N-weapons

COSMIC-RAY VISION
COSMIC-RAY VISION. A book-size, steel C-clamp (inset) shows up in a radiograph because cosmic rays bounce off the metal at larger angles than they do off lighter materials.
 

At US ports and border crossings, agents are increasingly using X-ray surveillance of shipping containers and trucks to foil attempts to smuggle nuclear weapons or radioactive materials into the country. A new study indicates that radiation from the heavens may provide a way to detect such threatening cargoes without requiring potentially dangerous X-ray sources.

Konstantin N. Borozdin of Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory and his coworkers have demonstrated in a laboratory experiment that they can use the relentless rain of cosmic rays to detect chunks of heavy metal. The researchers reported their findings in the March 20 Nature.

The presence of such weighty metals in a vehicle could tip off authorities that dangerous nuclear contraband is onboard. Many radioactive elements ó particularly the uranium and plutonium used in nuclear weapons ó are among the heaviest elements.

To test their approach, the Los Alamos scientists placed a 10-kilogram cylinder of tungsten about the size of a hamburger and its bun into a cosmic-ray detector made up of two stacks of thin, aluminium chambers, each one filled with argon gas and electrified steel wires. One stack was situated above the tungsten target and another below, an arrangement that could be realised in a port or border post by placing chambers above and below a truck.
Top