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     Volume 6 Issue 45 | November 23, 2007 |

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Camping with Science

Naimul Haque

The BioCamp participants with Nobel laureate Robert Horvitz (middle).

There is no denying that biotechnology is a fast-growing industrial sector. In fact, the current century is often referred to as the Bio Century, considering the role it is already playing as a catalyst not only for advances in areas like agriculture, medicine health applications, to name a few, but also for changes in societal functions. It is an immensely powerful tool to spur economic growth and ensure a sustainable future.

The recent Novartis international biotechnology leadership camp (Biocamp), held in October this year in Tokyo had Bangladesh as one of the contenders.

The Bangladesh side comprised Sagar Sen, an MBA student at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), and Sadia Mahboob, a part IV student of B Pharm (Hons) at University of Dhaka. What was most exciting was that Sagar won the outstanding individual performance award and was also in the champion team. This is a remarkable feat given that the competition was between the cream of graduate and post-graduate students from universities and management schools across Asia Pacific and Europe.

Sagar, making his presentation at BioCamp 2007.

The Biocamp is a conference-cum-competition for those majoring in bioscience and business management. Pharma leader Novartis and its affiliates organise it as part of their corporate social responsibility mandate. The rationale for the initiative, they say, is to provide the up-and-coming researchers and students with leadership potential an exposure to the industry experts, academia and policymakers and help them keep abreast on the complex dynamics of the biotech industry and global business.

But it is not all praise and glory when it comes to biotechnology and there is some well-founded scepticism that the miracle drugs it had promised might never translate into reality. There are ethical debates raging over stem cell research and human cloning, and concerns about environmental consequences of genetic manipulation of plants. There is also a public perception that all a corporation wants is to obtain patents and thus maximise profits without bothering much about the ethical issues concerning bioscience products.

Referring to biotechnological advances, Edward Yoxen, British author and academic, in his The Gene Business said, “No Winter Palace has been seized, no Bastille stormed, no monarchy abolished...(but) a technological assault is being prepared that will transform the economies of the developed and developing nations.”

Following the lead of the west many developing nations are now pacing themselves fast reaching for a position from where they can tap into the potentials of biotechnology. Unfortunately, we lag far behind in the race and the "genetic divide", between the industrialised countries and the developing ones is wider than ever. Since biotechnology has all the potential to meet manifold needs of the ever-growing population there is no alternative to bridging the gap. The responsibility in this regard rests not only with the governments and UN bodies but also with the developed nations and the trans-national companies. And that is where a programme like Biocamp comes in. Even if it is minuscule compared to the huge initiatives warranted, the event stands as a gesture of goodwill.

Through Biocamp, Novartis aims to support countries in the development of biotechnology by arousing interest, and helping their youth to prepare for careers in the life science industry.

“Representing the country at an international gathering is always a huge honour", says, Sagar Sen. "It was in fact a rare chance for us to benchmark ourselves against those from the developed world.”

“Sagar's achievement shows if we are given the opportunity we can compete neck to neck against the top talents from around the world" says Sadia, the other representative.

Both had to go through a rigorous screening to be chosen for the contest.

The participating countries hold Biocamps locally to select representatives. Hundreds of pharmaceutical, science or business majors throughout Asia, Australia and Europe fight for coveted slots in the global Biocamp.

The first Biocamp was held in Taiwan back in 2004. This year's was hosted by Novartis Pharma KK (Japan) and the Novartis Foundation (Japan) for the Promotion of Science in downtown Tokyo.

The three-day seminar began on October 6 at the Roppongi Academy Hills. It featured an impressive list of speakers that included prominent scientists and industry luminaries, and of them, Robert Horvitz, 2002 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, topped the bill.

Forty-three students from 14 countries went through a series of lectures, panel discussions, interactive QA sessions and active 10-hour group workshops.

Soon after the inaugural ceremony, the participants were split into eight groups and were asked to come up with business plans for a fresh biotech enterprise in three days starting from October 6. Workshops moderated by professional facilitator, lectures and group discussions would make up a typical day at the Biocamp.

The highlight of the event was Robert Horvitz's speech on the second day. With lucid and compelling words, he explained programmed cell death, the work which won him the Nobel, look so easy. He talked about why the cell is the fundamental unit of life, how programmed cell death sculpts tissues, and how its misregulation can cause disease. The audience listened spellbound as his lecture moved on from cell death to the family support he had enjoyed along the long and winding road to where he stands now.

Next came Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a professor of National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and senior scientist of Earth Institute, Columbia University. His lecture spanned from momentous discoveries that form the bedrock of modern medical sciences to bioethics to challenges of the 21st century.

Before the second day's workshop began, Dr Paul Herrling, head of Corporate Research, Novartis, gave the audience an insight into research and development at pharmaceuticals.

Throughout the workshop sessions staggered over the first two days, the participants brainstormed their company name, corporate mission, basic organisation, product concept, partnering strategy, positioning of the product etc. They had to give a presentation at the end of each workshop.

The last day was assigned for final presentations. Each team was given 12 minutes for the presentation and 3 minutes for Q & A.

They presented business proposals on drugs to fight colorectal cancer, obesity, genetic disorder haemophilia, depression, breast cancer, and prevent cataract.

The team made up of Sagar and a couple of other contestants won the honour of devising the best business plan. Besides him, Vineet Kumar Sharma (Japan), Emily Chang (Taiwan), Takleshi Fukahara (Japan) and David Sgier (Switzerland) bagged the best individual performance awards.

Brushing aside the skepticism regarding corporate initiative one has to admit that the more our students attend this kind of conference the more experience they will gain in order to become part of the globally sought-after human capital.

Novartis local chapter deserves kudos to give students the chance to know how they stack up against the best from other nations. And hopefully this year's success will help them keep the door open for more of our young minds to have similar exposure in future.

The Writer is Senior Sub Editor, The Daily Star


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