ImageA bleak year of restructuring and refocusing awaits…A number of grim predictions have been made regarding how biotech will fare in the harsh financing environment of 2009. According to G. Steven Burrill of Burrill & Co. (CA, USA), a very different biotech industry to the one of today will be awaiting us at the end of the year.

Biotech clusters are expected to move away from geographical regions and become more virtually based around diseases, pathways, markets and unique industry segments. Many small public and private companies will be forced to unite for survival and focus on the one key programme between them that has the greatest potential for value creation.

Meanwhile, the vultures of Big Pharma and biotech will be circling and waiting for the right opportunity to swoop in and acquire companies at what represents 1990 prices. Reverse mergers are also predicted. Many of these will be into public shells or 'burnout' companies that have seen their product fail, but still have the cash in which the merge believes that this vehicle will increase their funding options and provide a pathway to liquidity for their investors.

Huge changes are expected in the US market, including increased pressure on drug prices from employers and insurers, new generic drugs and the Obama administration. The industry is expected to consolidate and the number of functioning public companies will be reduced to approximately 250.

Spearheading synthetic biology

A grant worth approximately €8.6 million has helped launch a new UK centre that will focus on programming biological cells so that they behave like engineering parts. The funding came from the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Engineers and molecular bioscientists will work together to produce biologically based parts by modifying DNA. These parts could be used to build biological devices that may be able to detect the early onset of disease or combat harmful bacterial infections.

The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation will be established by Imperial College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science (both UK). Imperial College's Paul Freemont, Co-director of the centre, hopes that the next 20–50 years of research will allow synthetic biology techniques to obtain the precision of electronics. He says: "Our understanding of how living cells work isn't as good as our understanding of electronic devices. We want to get to the stage where we've got all the parts we need to build any biological machine we want."

Initially, researchers at the centre will focus on developing standard systems and specifications to create these parts, which will involve modifying DNA, inserting it into cells and cataloguing what these cells do. One of the long-term applications of the work could include developing biological microprocessors. These could be inserted into the body to monitor the health of patients or detect types of cancer.

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