Biotechnology’s promise

On a warm afternoon in early May, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue told a room full of Western North Carolina leaders that by 2025, biotechnology is projected to generate $24 billion in annual revenues in the state.

“Do you not want some of those billions up here?” she asked the group, adding, “I do.”

The possibility that biotechnology could give WNC a significant economic boost seemed to resonate with many in the crowd, who had come to A-B Tech’s Enka campus on May 3 to hear about a plan to promote such a vision.

Not everyone present was a biotechnology fan — most notably the small cluster of protesters at the campus gate who toted signs declaring “NO Biotech in WNC.” Invited into the meeting (though without their signs), they listened skeptically to the enthusiastic speeches delivered by politicians, university officials and others.

The gathering, however, proved to be long on pep and short on specifics; those are contained in a report released the same day by The Steering Committee to Strengthen Biotechnology in Western North Carolina, a collection of business, educational and political interests (see “Who’s steering the biotech effort?”). The report lays out their vision for biotech in this part of the state.

In a nutshell, the committee envisions a three-pronged strategy for augmenting the small number of biotech companies already operating in WNC: creating an attractive place for companies that use biological processes in manufacturing; expanding the number of clinical trials conducted locally; and cashing in on the area’s exceptional plant biodiversity.

But whether those goals are feasible — or even appropriate — is a matter of some debate. Though the report marks the start of an ambitious five- to 10-year plan, a shortage of funding has even one proponent calling one aspect of biotech’s local future “very cloudy.” And even if the vision does come to fruition, others question the wisdom of experimenting with the genetic structure of native plants.

A broad spectrum

Part of the challenge of sorting through the complexities of biotechnology is that the term covers so much. Over the last quarter century or so, scientists have increasingly been able to understand living organisms at the cellular level — and particularly at the level of DNA, notes W. Steven Burke, senior vice president of corporate affairs and external relations at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

That varied work has given birth to the field that’s broadly known as biotechnology, with wide-ranging applications in the areas of human health, agriculture, forestry and the environment, notes Burke.

Robin Suggs, executive director of the Yellow Creek Botanical Institute in Graham County, likens the general concept of biotechnology to that of agriculture. There’s sustainable agriculture and then there’s chemically intrusive agriculture, he notes. There’s the part of biotechnology that yields genetically modified crops and there’s the time-tested technique of hybridization, which Suggs also places under the biotechnology rubric. (Stretching the definition still further, the Biotechnology Center’s Web site, www.ncbiotech.org, cites the ancient Sumerians’ beer-brewing activities around 1750 B.C.E. as a biotechnological milestone.)

For the record, Suggs reports that the Yellow Creek Botanical Institute isn’t involved in genetic manipulation; he also serves on the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s board of directors, alongside legislators, university leaders and heads of biotech companies.

The secret lives of plants

Western North Carolina’s amazing diversity of plant life is what first got Asheville business leader Jack Cecil thinking about biotechnology a couple of years back. Then as now, many locals were concerned about the region’s economy and the dwindling number of manufacturing jobs. And biotechnology provides high-paying jobs, a point stressed more than once at the May meeting.

“It’s a rapidly expanding economic sector in this country and the world,” observes Cecil. “If that’s happening on a worldwide basis and we have a competitive advantage with the plants that are here, that seems a natural, logical step to connect the dots.”

So Cecil, the president of Biltmore Farms development company, called up the N.C. Biotechnology Center to ask for an assessment of biotech’s potential in WNC. The General Assembly established The Biotechnology Center (a private, nonprofit corporation based in Research Triangle Park) in 1981 to boost biotech efforts in the state.

The answer, Burke recalls, was, “Look, realistically the western third of this state can never practically gain all the resources for complete technology development.'”

That’s because the area lacks certain essentials, such as investment and venture capital and a major research university or medical school, he says.

So what could be WNC’s piece of the biotech pie? That became the focus of The Steering Committee to Strengthen Biotechnology in Western North Carolina, formed in March 2001. The committee held three public meetings last spring and summer and met again last August to come up with the 11 “imperatives” contained in its report.

“It’s all about economic development,” declares A-B Tech President K. Ray Bailey, a member of the steering committee. “All the N.C. Biotechnology Center folk have said to us they think this is a golden opportunity. So we’ve taken that statement and collectively tried to find ways to make all of this work.”

Biomanufacturing — using biological processes to produce products — can be used to create everything from pharmaceuticals to enzymes used in detergents. And it doesn’t have to be done near a research site, notes Burke.

“It’s not inappropriate for Western North Carolina to cobble together some resources that will make it an appealing site for biomanufacturing,” suggests Burke.

With its existing health-care network, Western North Carolina is already a site for clinical trials. The steering committee’s report suggests building on that network as well as tapping into the more than 70 clinical-research organizations in the state to expand the number of clinical trials conducted regionally.

The report also notes that even though Western North Carolina is rich in biodiversity, the region has traditionally relied on only a handful of cash crops. Biotechnology offers strategies for expanding the number of key species, strengthening the agricultural sector in general, and preserving endangered species, the report asserts.

Target: native plants

The idea of encouraging biomanufacturing in WNC doesn’t seem to raise many eyebrows; neither does expanding the number of clinical trials conducted hereabouts. Applying biotechnology to plants, however, seems to be more of a hot button.

Some local biotech champions have tried to downplay the possibility of genetic manipulation; asked about it, Cecil simply said that the specifics of the committee’s plan to target native plants is not his specialty. The report, however, lays out the rationale for targeting four areas: native plants and herbs, forestry, value-added crops, and horticulture and nursery stock.

As the report notes, WNC is home to one of the nation’s most distinctive biosystems, with an estimated 2,500 plant species — including many plants unique to the region. And little research has been done into those native species’ medicinal, nutritional or other properties, the report maintains.

Enter biotechnology, which could help us take advantage of these native plants and herbs, according to the report: “Key techniques of biotechnology, including genomics and genetic transformation, will enable precise exploration and utilization of properties of interest — and of economic value.”

As for forestry applications, the steering committee’s report suggests that the entire forestry industry in WNC — including Christmas trees, fruit and plantation trees and others — could benefit from the sciences of genomics and molecular biology. In particular, biotech might be used to help revive the American chestnut tree; once a mainstay of local forests, the valuable species was effectively wiped out by a deadly fungal blight accidentally imported from the Orient early in the 20th century.

The report also suggests that biotechnology can foster the development of row crops or other plants “altered to yield, in their biomass or fruits, economically strong products such as pharmaceutical proteins and nutraceutical components.” Although many farming operations use huge amounts of land, the report maintains that the small plots that are better suited to WNC’s mountainous terrain wouldn’t be a liability.

Biotech could also be applied to fruit, nursery and ornamental stock to yield species or strains with “new, targeted or desirable characteristics.” The report adds: “The area’s biodiversity might well prove a rich foundation for new species.”

Through genomics (analyzing the characteristics of any living organism) and bioinformatics (making use of the resulting data), Western North Carolina could position itself as a leader in the study of native plants, suggests Burke.

“There is no measurable attempt being made in the world to take leadership in the genomics and bioinformatics of native plants,” Burke observes.

He envisions something like this: A local company could work with the Research Triangle Institute (which already has a major program studying native plants) to identify four or five key plants that could be grown in WNC — and altered to produce “more effective pharmacological outcomes.” The plants could be grown in small batches by mountain farmers under contract and be processed at a new biomanufacturing plant in WNC, Burke suggests.

“None of this is easy or quick,” he cautions.

But why would biotechnology even be needed in such a scenario?

Citing the case of bloodroot, a native species with antimicrobial properties, Burke notes that there’s already an unmet demand for the plant, which is currently harvested only in the wild.

“If we’re going to try to measurably increase the crop yield, it’s going to take some changes,” Burke explains.

Genetic manipulation, however, isn’t the only way to adapt wild native plants to cultivation. The Yellow Creek Botanical Institute is already working on adapting bloodroot using the traditional tools of hybridization and selection (see box, “The natural path”).

All that glitters

The idea of tinkering with the genetic makeup of native plants gives Greg Cumberford pause. Cumberford is senior resources manager at Gaia Herbs in Brevard, a company that produces whole-plant herbal extracts.

“I actually think it’s good for our leaders to be thinking outside the box of a tobacco- … and smokestack-based industry,” offers Cumberford. “But I think there is a strong difference in the kind of holistic biotechnology that Gaia represents and [what] I’ll call … the mechanistic biotechnology that has come to be associated with genetic manipulation.”

In fact, Cumberford and others in the region are working to establish a nonprofit organization called the N.C. Natural Products Association, slated to be launched within the next few months (see “The natural path”).

“Those efforts actually exemplify what we see as an alternative or a complement to the Western North Carolina Steering Committee’s initiative,” he observes.

Cumberford sees biotechnology as a logical extension of the basic sciences — though he parts ways with biotech proponents when it comes to things like the patenting of proprietary genetic sequences.

That, he says, “leads us into an ethical realm that deserves far more public scrutiny and literacy than currently exists. We’re experimenting with the biosphere in real time. The biosphere is the laboratory. Are we comfortable with this?”

For Cumberford, the answer is clearly no — which is why he works for Gaia Herbs, a company that applies its analytical resources to analyzing and preserving whole-plant chemistry.

Others also have concerns. Organic-gardening expert Jeff Ashton cites the case of soybeans genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup. The problem, he notes, is that weeds in surrounding fields also appear to have become resistant to Roundup. Scientists at the University of Missouri-Columbia have been studying that very possibility, according an article published last year in the The Kansas City Star.

“The track record shows that there’s no way that you can guarantee that you’re not doing potential damage to other crops around,” says Ashton.

Chris Farmer, who practices sustainable forest management and natural building in Rutherford County as one of the founders of Earthhaven’s Forestry Cooperative, had questions about how biotech would apply to WNC’s forests. It seems ironic, he says, that the steering committee’s report touts biodiversity — yet the biotech approach seems ultimately likely to result in less diversity.

Farmer asks what future generations can expect. “Are we going to leave them a handful of genetically engineered varieties that are susceptible to catastrophe? Or are we going to leave them a wealth of biodiversity? … Why not enhance what’s already out there in the natural system?”

And at the May meeting at A-B Tech, some biotech protesters worried that the initiative could include the prospect of experimenting with genetically modified crops — and that through cross-pollination, local organic farms could be damaged.

“Once these things are released into the environment, they’re difficult to recall,” noted Rodney Webb, a protester from Marshall who’s a member of Carolina Partners for Pure Food, a volunteer, nonprofit group in Asheville dedicated to informing the public about genetically engineered food.

But Matthew Meyer, A-B Tech’s dean of corporate and economic development, dismisses that scenario. Huge companies in the Midwest, he says, have pretty well cornered the market on genetically engineered crops, so there’s little likelihood of this sort of work being done here.

“I don’t think the organic farmers have anything to worry about,” Meyer says. “They could better spend their time figuring out how to better market their products than worrying about this.”

And biotech proponent Burke maintains that the greatest concern surrounding agricultural biotech — that of genetically altered crops tranferring their characteristics to nonaltered crops — hasn’t really materialized.

Burke does acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about the still-emerging field of agricultural biotechnology — especially given its short track record (only about 15-17 years).

“The law of unintended consequences is real,” Burke concedes.”Things happen.”

Still, Burke sees only two options: “To totally truncate agricultural biotechnology, or … to be very, very careful at all stages. And the second course, of course, is that which has been adopted by America and other countries.”

He may be overlooking the widespread rejection of genetically modified foods in Europe and other countries. In fact, many European countries forbid the import of any foods produced from genetically modified crops, notes a June United Press International article.

But even Cumberford maintains that biotech is too much of a national and international phenomenon to stop.

“I hope that the people who stand to benefit most from this approach this project with the utmost humility and long-range view,” offers Cumberford. “There’s no stopping it. You can’t stop the human mind from seeking to take things apart. It’s what we do best — and worst. It’s what gave us the atomic bomb, for example.”

Chances are…

Putting together a viable biotechnology initiative will also require several other components, the steering committee concluded. These include developing educational and work-force training programs at Western Carolina University, UNCA and A-B Tech.

“We’re not going to be doing anything — from my perspective — that’s going to be harmful to our community,” asserts Bailey. “What we’re looking for is biotechnology industries that will be making prescription drugs and those kinds of things that will enhance our quality of life.”

For its part, A-B Tech plans to serve as a home base for the local biotech effort in part of a cavernous building on its Enka campus — dubbed the Biotechnology Incubator and Training Center — that BASF once used as its research and development facility. BASF donated it and two other buildings plus nearly 37 acres of land to the school’s board of trustees in October 2000.

But before they can house any budding biomanufacturers, college officials say they must overcome several hurdles. One is bringing the 152,000-square-foot structure up to code — which may take a year, says Meyer. Another hurdle is the state’s continuing budget crunch, which could delay the effort another year beyond that, he notes. And it costs about $1 million annually just to heat, cool and maintain the building.

Meyer is also feeling a certain amount of pressure, since one local biotech company that specializes in protein synthesis wants to move out of a basement and into the incubator by September. He sees other potential tenants as well, given the shortage of small laboratories in Research Triangle Park.

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