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Biomedical Optics & Medical Imaging

Biotech - Biotech beats with a heart of light.

From oemagazine May 2005
30 May 2005, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200505.0002

Optoelectronics has always supported biotech, from its genetic engineering roots, to the labs-on-chips, nanodot sensors, and targeted drug-delivery therapies in development today. Like all good relationships, it's a two-way street where everyone benefits.

In 2001, the optoelectronic industry felt the burst of the telecom bubble and the semiconductor downturn like twin blows from a 16-pound sledgehammer. Biotech was one of the first high-tech industries to rebound from the economic downturn of 2001, and in 2004, the biotech and medical device industries claimed $5.6 billion or 27% of all venture capital (VC) funding in the United States, according to a recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Thomson Venture Economics, and the National Venture Capital Association.

Strong markets generate investment interest, and the collision of biotech with optoelectronics is no exception. Analyst firm Business Communications Company Inc. (Norwalk, CT) predicts the global pharmaceutical market will reach $938 billion by 2008; adjunctive therapies including photodynamic therapy will reach $8.8 billion by 2009; DNA diagnostics will account for $12.6 billion by 2009; microelectronic medical implants will reach $32.3 billion by 2009; and medical imaging reagents will reach $3.9 billion by 2008.

And the intersection between biotech and optoelectronics is far from complete. Biotech has grown from just genetic engineering research into pharmaceuticals and drug discovery, medical devices, and monitoring and medical services. Analyst firm Informagen Inc. (Newington, NH) breaks the biotech market further into four end-user groups: human research, agriculture, environmental science, and veterinary sciences. Optoelectronic tools and materials are present in each category, from high-throughput drug screening systems in pharmaceuticals, to in vivo fiber optic probes for real-time monitoring of living systems, to image processing methodologies maintaining and mining biotech informatics.

Many optical technologies developed for biotech also have application in other industries, including semiconductor manufacturing and nanotechnology. The United States added $135 million to the Department of Homeland Security budget in 2005 for "biosurveillance."

Start-up Cambrios Technologies Corp. (Mountainview, CA) is commercializing technology developed at MIT that uses bacteriophages, or viruses that only infect bacteria, to construct nanostructures and thin films with nanometer precision based on the molecular affinity of individual peptides and inorganic materials. "It's basically a deposition process that doesn't need solvents or kilns," explains Stuart Matlow, marketing consultant for Cambrios. The company is looking to use biologics as a self-organizing structural method for integrated circuits and thin films with the first commercial products expected by 2007, he says.

Despite the massive investment in biotech in recent years, the industry has not been immune to the prevailing economic winds. Like all manufacturing sectors, biotech companies have had to focus on the bottom line. According to Ernst & Young's (New York, NY) annual report on the biotech industry, the number of publicly traded biotech companies around the world shrank from 619 in 2002 to 611 in 2003, but the surviving companies reported 17% higher revenues by reducing research and development spending by 16% and improving net loss by 65%. Companies have managed to do more with less by leveraging technology to automate processes and speed up throughput to shorten time to market for new products.

Biotech is realizing that its rosy financial outlook has its limits and constraints. Few companies will be able to continue to afford the average $600 million price tag for developing a single drug therapy. Only by leveraging technology that places productivity on level with performance can the industry succeed. If the 25% growth in the number of technical presentations on new diagnostic methods and systems at the recent 2005 SPIE BiOS conference is any indication, optoelectronics will be ready to help biotech stay healthy and on track. oe