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Patents and research programmes - in the international comparison, no one surpasses the USA

by Anke Wilde

In the international biotechnology industry, the United States are the heavyweight. This fact may well come as no surprise to many but is confirmed by statistical data from the OECD. This relates both to patent registrations and the number of biotechnology companies: the more than 6,200 US American biotechnology companies even exceed the total number of companies in Spain, France, Korea, Germany, Australia, Japan and Great Britain combined (listed here according to their rank).

Patents and research programmes – in the international comparison, no one surpasses the USA© Tryfonov Ievgenii - iStockphoto.comIn the field of biotechnology, the USA is the leader in terms of patent registrations and the number of biotech companies
The OECD statistics continue in a similar fashion. Almost half (42%) of all patents registered between 2007 and 2009 are of US American origin. The vast majority of the biopharmaceuticals approved since 1989 originate from the United States. The USA is also the leader in terms of spending on research and development, totalling 22 billion US dollars in 2010. The outlook begins to darken at this point though, for in comparison with 2006, R&D funding has decreased by 3 billion dollars.

In times of crisis, extremely cost-intensive biotechnology obviously is not the only horse the US companies wish to back. While the number of companies working at least in part with biotechnologies increased dramatically between 2006 and 2010 (from 3,301 to 6,213), the sub-group of companies concerned predominantly with biotech declined (from 2,744 to 2,370).

North and South America dominate in green genetic engineering

In most countries, red - so medical - biotechnology is well established. In many places, white biotechnology is also gaining ground, primarily where it involves making the chemical industry less dependent on petroleum, for example. This is, however, not so in the case of green biotechnology. Genetically modified plants are a topic of much debate all across Europe. According to the OECD, Spain is ranked third after the USA and Canada in terms of the number of field tests in 2008. However, in terms of the total area under cultivation, all European countries - without exception - ranked far down the table.

It is primarily in the countries of North and South America that genetically modified plants dominate agriculture. In 2008, they were cultivated on more than 63 million hectares in the USA, followed by 21 million hectares in Brazil. In Paraguay, nine out of ten hectares are planted with such crops; in Argentina three out of four.

Ralf Reski warns of closing Germany and Europe off even further to green genetic engineering. "In ten, 15 years, genetically modified seed will be normal here, but then the market will no longer be open to up and coming German companies," warns the professor for plant biotechnology from the University of Freiburg. Genetically modified plants also provide the opportunity to render agriculture more environmentally friendly, as they mean less fertilizers and pesticides must be used. He does not have any safety concerns - to date, no dangerous consequences for the human organism or environment have been confirmed in any of the still so critical studies, underlines Reski, who previously worked as a scientific adviser for the Baden-Württemberg state government and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Patents and research programmes - in the international comparison, no one surpasses the USA Ralf Reski is a professor for plant biotechnology at the University of Freiburg

The funding culture is extremely different internationally

According to OECD statistics, Germany takes first place in terms of public spending on biotechnology: 21.2 per cent of all R&D expenses can be attributed to this research sector alone. South Korea sets a similar priority in its state research funding (19.8%) However, the data is only significant to a limited extent in this point, as no comparable figures are available for research heavyweights such as the USA, Japan and France.

Vast differences exist between the individual countries with regards to research funding in particular. "Here in Germany, we have a hotchpotch of comparatively small programmes and funding from the federal government, the federal states, the EU and foundations," explains Ralf Reski. "However, if you go to the United States or Japan, there are extremely elaborate application processes involving far larger sums of money." The professor at the University of Freiburg finds that both have their advantages and disadvantages. Those in the USA or Japan who are unsuccessful in their bid for funding must fear for the continued existence of their work group. Here in Germany, the universities are well provided for by the basic state funding, meaning that continuous research is possible. That being said, a fair amount of administrative costs must be reckoned with for the many small programmes though.

Reskis' scientific speciality is mosses. "They are ingenious. They span around one billion years of evolution and are between algae and the present-day agricultural crops." Those who begin researching mosses generally perform basic research. Germany is a good place for them, says Reski. They are researched in depth at the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG) in particular. However, when he wished to decipher the moss genome, he spent two years seeking funding in Germany and Europe - without any prospect of finding funding for his research project, for he would have needed ten million euros for it. He ultimately decided to cooperate with the Joint Genome Institute in the USA. Together with American colleagues, they prepared a five-page proposal, and two months later, approval was granted. "Now the moss genome has an American flag beside it even though although we did all the preliminary and evaluation work here in Germany. That being said compared with the USA, the DFG also only paid around five per cent."

Europe is by no means united in terms of the legal status of research

Reski would also like greater unity on legal issues across Europe. Research on genetic engineering is regulated differently in every country, and what is permitted in one may well be against the law in another. "While the European research area is invoked time and time 'again and millions of euros of funding are pumped into it, when it comes to the legal details, individual states are often clueless,' bemoans Reski. A uniform European patent is required for this, for Europe is divided on this point.

The European Patent Office in Munich also eagerly awaits such a patent. The existing European patent is already supported by 38 Member States, and there is a uniform procedure for the granting of patents, says Deputy Spokesman Rainer Osterwalder. "But then everything disintegrates into a mess of national patents again, which must be declared valid at the patent authorities of the respective states." Thus the European patent is not considered uniform in all states. The EPA is therefore following the developments within the EU, which is currently working on a uniform patent for the Member States. Osterwalder believes a decision may still be reached by the European legislators this autumn. It would then be up to the Member States to transfer the ruling into national law.

academics :: December 2012