National Biotechnology Month (2021) - Expert Interview & Advocacy Guide

January is National Biotechnology Month. First announced by President Bill Clinton in 2000, National Biotechnology Month marks a time to recognize and prioritize the achievements and the potential of biotechnology. Now, as the first shipments of coronavirus vaccines reach the American public, National Biotechnology Month has never been more important.

Broadly defined, biotechnology refers to any technique that makes use of organisms or living systems to develop or make products. As a field of study, it overlaps with several other scientific disciplines, and its applications are as far-reaching as they are world-changing.

The first use of the term ‘biotechnology’ is said to have originated just over 100 years ago, but the principles of biotechnology have been in practice for thousands of years, dating back to the discovery of fermentation through beer-brewing. In the common era, biotechnology delivered the world’s first viral vaccines: Edward Jenner first inoculated a child against smallpox in 1798; Louis Pasteur developed vaccines against cholera and rabies in 1881 and 1885, respectively.

In the last 100 years, biotechnology has brought us the centrifuge, penicillin, artificial insemination, bionic limbs, and a complete map of the human genome. And as important as it is to recognize what biotechnology has done in the past, it’s equally important to understand where it’s headed next.

What’s Next for Biotechnology?

For biotechnology, the year 2020 will go down in history as one of the field’s greatest triumphs. Faced with a novel coronavirus turned global pandemic, the world’s best and brightest biotechnologists came together to develop safe and effective vaccinations at a record-breaking pace. Aided by federal support, a common purpose, and international collaboration, the impossible was made possible, and now the field of biotechnology is considering what else might be on the horizon.

In the area of human health, biotechnology is focused on developing new medicines and new cancer treatments. In the areas of agriculture and the environment, biotechnology’s innovations have major implications in bio-based manufacturing, sustainable fuel use, and re-thinking food and farming.

And the benefits extend to the economy, too: for every job in biotechnology, two more jobs are created in other sectors across rural America. If given the support it needs and deserves, biotechnology can play a critical role in helping to feed, fuel, clothe, employ and heal a world population that’s expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050.

Big Ideas in Biotechnology: Foundry for American Biotechnology

“The best way to work with us is to present your ideas. We can’t wait to hear them.”
Joe Hamel, Strategic Innovation and Emerging Technology Manager for the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR)

America’s biotech industry just got a $51 million dollar shot to the arm in the form of a grant for the first Foundry for American Biotechnology. Launched by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), its goal is to produce technological solutions that can enhance medical care, respond to security threats, and add to the US bio-economy.

“The idea for the Foundry for American Biotechnology started with a dedicated group from across the U.S. government,” says Joe Hamel, the Strategic Innovation and Emerging Technology Manager for the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). “We all recognized the need to continue strategic investments in the U.S. bio-economy in order to ensure that America stayed at the forefront of biotechnology and precision medicine applications. ”

But this isn’t purely a government operation: it’s a public-private partnership with an all-star team. Headquartered in Manchester, New Hampshire, the Foundry is managed in conjunction with the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), led by iconic inventor Dean Kamen’s DEKA Research Corp.

Meet the Expert: Joe Hamel (HHS ASPR)

Joe Hamel

Joe Hamel is the Strategic Innovation and Emerging Technology Manager for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). He received his BA in molecular biology from Colgate University and his MS in biotechnology from John Hopkins University. Prior to joining the ASPR, Hamel worked as a biologist for the US Army, where he also served as a team leader and chief of planning and policy. Later, Hamel was a program director for the Department of Homeland Security, and then a program manager at Johns Hopkins University’s applied physics laboratory. You can find him on Twitter (@JoeHamel9).

Making Waves: The Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI) & The Foundry

DEKA has made plenty of headlines before. Its water purification device, Slingshot, turned red liquid filled with crushed Doritos into clear, colorless water on The Colbert Report in 2008. DEKA’s product line includes a portable dialysis machine, the Segway, and a bionic prosthesis called Luke Arm (named as such for its resemblance to Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand in the latter half of the Star Wars trilogy). So what will they be working on at the Foundry?

“The first project is a transition effort between ASPR and the DoD Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA),” Hamel says, “and it’s a win-win.”

It started in October of 2018, when ASPR pulled together experts from industry, academia, and government to start a conversation about an effort called Priority Medicines on Demand. DARPA was a part of that group and had promising technologies that could help change how pharmaceuticals are made.

ASPR, which oversees the Strategic National Stockpile, saw tremendous potential in the ability to use this technology to manufacture essential medicines in a highly distributed way throughout the United States, reducing the reliance on a complex global supply chain to ensure essential medicines were always available.

The goal is to produce an automated, portable device that can manufacture medications on-demand to be used for disaster recovery, or for patients and service members in rural areas that don’t have easy access to a well-equipped pharmacy. It has a renewed importance in the face of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and it reinforces what public-partnerships can do best: cut down on the red tape and focus on deliverable game-changing solutions.

The Foundry is more than a one-trick pony. It engages with regional experts and houses a wet lab, dry lab, idea lab, learning zone, and manufacturing space that includes access to DEKA’s robust capabilities in design, modeling, prototyping, and simulation. It also includes a commercialization program that should reduce the need for purely governmental agencies to store medications, vaccines, diagnostics, and equipment.

For the first Foundry for American Biotechnology, what seems like science fiction is actually the present tense. Given that, what’s the future look like? According to Hamel, that’s up to the new generation of biotechnologists coming through the ranks.

“We are living in the century of biology,” Hamel says, in his advice to those just starting their careers in biotechnology. “Keep pursuing those dreams and don’t get bogged down with the status quo—always question it. Also, don’t forget to invest your time in the arts as well as the sciences. To truly change the world, creative thinkers have to see beyond a protocol or technical specification and collide scientific applications in new ways.”

Innovators who are interested in using the Foundry can learn more about the current problems ASPR is looking to solve. For six months in 2020, ASPR accepted public proposals to work with the Foundry, and they’ll likely be accepting new proposals again soon.

“The best way to work with us is to present your ideas,” Hamel says. “We can’t wait to hear them.”

What Are the Top Issues for the Biotechnology Community?

For all its innovations, the biotechnology community is still focused on re-inventing itself. That re-invention involves advocating for policy reform and governmental investment, but it also involves changes that must come from within the biotechnology community itself.

A top priority for biotechnology is the establishment of more efficient and predictable regulatory processes. Learning from what went right with Operation Warp Speed, the biotechnology community is calling for the development of science-based regulatory frameworks that can expedite the time to market for non-human health innovations, particularly those with a strong positive climate or social impact.

Biotechnology also needs more transparency and collaboration, particularly across borders. The further sharing of biological data across countries, in combination with the promotion of translational science and biotech entrepreneurship, can spur innovations that would not otherwise be possible in a non-collaborative environment.

It’s a chief responsibility of biotechnology to be a voice of science and for science: elevating scientific rigor, defending scientific truth, and actively rebutting misinformation (particularly in regard to anti-vaccination campaigns).

But it also means pursuing more diverse and equitable leadership through programs like Right Mix Matters. Boosting diversity and representation within biotechnology has scientifically-proven benefits: broadening access to transformative therapies, reducing health disparities, and unlocking more positive impacts on nutrition, environment, and community health.

How Can You Get Involved in National Biotechnology Month?

Supporting National Biotechnology Month can be as simple as amplifying the voices of science and biotechnology.

Pitching in and helping to spread the facts around the benefits and safety of vaccination can have a measurable effect on the health and safety of the nation. If you want to hear what the experts have to say, authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) both have dedicated information pages.

BIO is the world’s largest trade association representing biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers, and related organizations. They actively work towards enriching the biotechnology industry with networking, partnering, and education opportunities, and they’re also the host of the largest cost-savings program in the life sciences.

For those working in the biotechnology industry, membership pays for itself. But even non-members can get involved in policy issues that benefit the wider community through the advocacy toolkits on BIO’s website.

BIO is also partnering with JPM Week, which takes place from January 11-15, 2021. JPM Week is shorthand for the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, the largest healthcare investment symposium in the industry, which seeks to bring together industry leaders, fast-growing companies, innovative technologies, and members of the investment community. If you’re interested in what’s next for biotechnology and healthcare innovation, you can join in the conversation at JPM Week.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.