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Guest Thinkers

Biotech Without Borders

American politicians and lawmakers are deeply conflicted about human enhancement technologies (medical interventions that extend the capabilities of the human body). Stem cell research doesn’t qualify as enhancement; rather it is a therapy, which can potentially be used for enhancement purposes. Regardless, it is a case study in how progress is stymied by ethical debates. President Bush vetoed an expansion in federal funding for stem cell research at the advice of his conservative President’s Council on Bioethics in 2006; President Obama dissolved the Council and promptly overturned the ban in 2009; a US court ordered a stay against the overturned ban in 2010; another US court overruled the first court’s ruling soon afterwards. Given the ambivalence of the system, stem cell research, crucial for restoring normal life to people with Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and other diseases that touch us and those we love, will likely never progress in the US.

As if the debilitating limbo forced by the patchwork of liberal and conservative bioethicists wasn’t enough, we are also burdened by a regulatory bureaucracy called the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) that is slow, risk-averse and inefficient in getting drugs passed through the system. Case in point: it takes $500 million and up to a decade to get a drug approved in the US, the most costly and lengthy process in the world. If that doesn’t dissuade investors from starting biotech companies in the US, here’s something that will: the FDA is planning to become more stringent especially in procedures that allow drugs to be tested in humans. The result is that even though much of the innovative basic research is done in the US, researchers are increasingly considering going to other countries for further development.

Given the current state of limbo of the US regulatory system, one could be tempted to think human enhancement technologies will not be distributed commonly for decades. Perhaps that would be the case if the US was the only country in the world pursuing biotechnology, but across the Pacific Ocean in the East are a cluster of countries that are aggressively investing in the industry unperturbed by the bioethical debates paralyzing the West. Korea, Singapore, China and India are each pouring billions of dollars in everything from stem cell research to genetic engineering, and stand to develop and commercialize much of the research that was initiated in the US.

Unlike the US, the East is neither conflicted about the morality of human enhancement, nor is it burdened with a excessively risk-averse regulatory system. Why?

Ironically, the answer to why the East is supportive of highly futuristic technology lies in its centuries old spirituality. Lee Silver argues that the spiritual divide between East and West may lead to a great economic advantage for the East in biotechnology. For Christians, man is made in the image of God who is the sole Supreme Being of the Universe. Any attempt to alter His plan for the nature of man is tantamount to ‘playing God’ and therefore immoral and punishable. All other parts of nature, including livestock, agriculture and fishery, can be modified to serve man. Even Europeans, who are becoming increasingly secular, are finding an alternate religion in the sanctity of Nature and the desire to protect it from the unintended consequences of technological intervention. Hence the ban on genetically modified foods in Europe. Despite their different starting points, the result in both the United States and the EU is the same: actively managing Nature is largely considered immoral.

In the Buddhist-Hindu tradition, however, there exist many manifestations of God, and each soul is incarnated into multiple energy forms. The human essence is therefore mutable and evolves over time, which means that any attempt to alter it is not antithetical to the dynamic order of the universe. In his chapter in Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizens, Lee calls this the ‘Asian Opportunity,’ to far surpass the West, which is paralyzed by the confines of its beliefs. “Generally, non-Christian Asians feel comfortable with all forms of biotechnology,” he says, “and their governments are poised to leap ahead of Western countries in research and development of plant, animal, and embryo engineering.”

The great transformation of East Asia into a biotechnology hub has already begun. Singapore has invested over $3.5 billion dollars to set up Biopolis, a biotechnology hub in East Asia, which will be home to the headquarters of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, as well as to incubators for some of the most cutting edge research being done in the West. The Biopolis complex with its two million square feet of newly developed buildings to house researchers and labs represents the seriousness of the Singaporean government in committing itself to one of the three pillars of its economic policy for 2050: biotechnology. While in the US, we shy away from even fully fleshing out the promise of biotechnology, the government itself in Singapore is touting it as one of the country’s most valuable industries in the 21st century. Not only is it investing in the infrastructure for basic research, but Singapore’s elite technocrats have a mandate to push research from academic labs into commercializable scalable products. Their ‘pragmatic’ approach to biomedicine also extends to clinical trials, which take a much shorter time to reach versus the US. Singapore is also going to great lengths to attract the most prominent minds in the West, who disappointed with the inertia in the US are happily moving to Singapore to complete their passion for research. One example: Alan Coleman, who was part of the team that cloned Dolly. Leading research universities like Johns Hopkins are also building their research campuses in Singapore in order to conduct certain biotech research that would be impossible in the US.

China, India and Korea are making similar investments, making state sponsorship the effective antidote to democratic biopolitical haggling. The Chinese government in particular is investing heavily in everything from genetically modified crops to stem cell research.  By having a policy focused on growth of the biotech industry, China’s has experienced massive growth. China’s biotech industry registered sales grew from $31 million in1986 to $2.4 billion in 2000. In 2010, The Beijing Genome Institute placed an order for 128 high-performance DNA sequencers from the US company Illumina for $60 million. The Institute now outstrips all its competitors in the West in having the largest number of in one institute. China also has a highly skilled technical population that is much cheaper to employ than the US. Given the increasing importance of genetic analysis and therapy, this effectively gives China a potential lead in this industry.  If China can sequence genes faster and cheaper than the US, it will give China the same lead it has in manufacturing today.

Thus while America is paralyzed by bloated institutions and unproductive debates, East Asian countries move on full steam ahead. Where we take ten years to approve a drug, they can get it from research to human trial in less than half that time; where we take years to debate whether we can do something, they never approach it as a debate to begin with.  In 50 years, this could give the East a great advantage in biotechnology over the West. In a 100 years, if the East uses its increased knowledge and infrastructure to distribute cheap human enhancement technologies to its citizens, the advantage could be far more profound.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.


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