Taiwan, first discovered in the 16th century by the Portugese who named it Formosa, or Beautiful Island, is now recognized worldwide as a manufacturer of electronics, chemicals, and medical supplies. In the early 1990s, the Taiwanese government targeted biotechnology as the next wave for economic development, and the number of firms dramatically increased.
In 2004, there were 238 biotechnology companies specializing in molecular biology, genomics, bioinformatics, small molecule drug discovery, biochips, and protein therapeutics.
Biotechnology firms cluster on the northern tip of the island around Taipei, which also has a large concentration of universities, such as the National Taiwan University and Academia Sinica, which is a consortium of six university-based life science research institutions.
At Taiwan's 158 universities, 22,000 graduate students and 166,000 undergraduates are enrolled in biotechnology courses, indicating no shortage of future bioscientists.
Government Funds Expansion
The Development Center for Biotechnology (DCB) in Taipei was established in 1984 to foster the development of the biotechnology industry in Taiwan. The Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) funds DCB, an autonomous, non-profit research organization that links academic-based research with private firms. DCB employs 350 people, and 60% of them are laboratory scientists who work in drug development, gene therapy, Chinese herbal medicine, environmental biotechnology, and preclinical toxicology programs. DCB transfers technological discoveries made at the agency to private enterprises.
The DCB's BioFronts program identifies, evaluates, and funds start-up biotechnology companies in Taiwan. "Entrepreneurship is great in Taiwan, and many young companies are started by young scientists," says pharmacologist Seymour Mong, Ph.D., executive advisor at DCB. Moreover, many early discovery projects are reaching maturity, so it is "a great opportunity for international biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to partner with Taiwan's start-ups," Dr. Mong adds.
In 2001, the preclinical toxicology program at DCB expanded its infrastructure and began to function as a CRO for GLP toxicology work. Dr. Mong is overseeing the conversion of the GLP toxicology laboratory into a private CRO, which will provide services to other Asian countries, North America, and Europe.
In the last 10 years, CROs have grown in Taiwan, and large international CROs have entered the market. "The cost of doing preclinical and clinical development work is substantially lower in Taiwan than in the United States or Europe," says Dr. Mong, "so global CROs are moving to Taiwan."
To improve the flow of business with foreign and local companies, the MOEA set up the Biotechnology & Pharmaceutical Industries Program Office to coordinate business, regulatory, and legal processes in order to facilitate business locally and globally. Taiwan also has several biotechnology parks, including the Taipei City Neihu Technology Park and the Taipei County Wu-Ku Industrial District.
Fusing Taiwan and America
The Taiwan-America Biotechnology Association (TABA; www.taba-usa.org) bridges the biotechnology gap between Taiwan and the U.S. A group of biotechnology professionals who work in southern California and have ties to Taiwan started TABA in 2000.
At first TABA "did knowledge exchange, but now we're transitioning into arranging business deals," says Helen Chen, secretary general of TABA and vp, business development at Ambryx (Riverside, CA). TABA hosted several BioForums in San Diego and Taiwan to unite researchers, executives, and investors. "By fostering more deals, the industry will grow faster in Taiwan," says Chen.
TABA's mission is to "help the fusion of scientific breakthroughs and business exchanges between the United States and Taiwan," says Michael Wu, Ph.D., board director of TABA and a scientist at Neurome (La Jolla, CA).
Companies in Taiwan and the U.S. benefit from the BioForums sponsored by TABA. "U.S. companies can take advantage of the efficient infrastructure of Taiwan's economical CROs and medical device manufacturing firms to enter their products into the Asia-Pacific market," says Dr. Wu.
On the other hand, biotech start-ups in the U.S. may find funding in Taiwan. When Charles Shih, Ph.D., founded AndroScience (San Diego), the money came from Taiwan connections. "Funding has been difficult for start-ups in the United States in the last few year, and it's even more difficult for Asian entrepreneurs," says Dr. Shih, also a member of TABA.
AndroScience identifies active compounds, which are derived from traditional Chinese herbal medicines, to use as pharmaceutical candidates for androgen disorders, such as prostate cancer and prostate enlargement. AndroScience recently discovered a new group of compounds that possess a novel androgen regulating mechanism.
Seeking the Next Asian Genentech
After just three years of operation, TaiGen Biotechnology (Taipei) has four compounds in preclinical development for tissue ischemia, transplant rejection, solid tumors, and SARS. The 100 employees, including 75 scientists recruited from the U.S., Europe, and Canada, work in a 40,000-sq-ft, state-of-the-art facility.
TaiGen scientists use CART (constitutively activated receptor technology) licensed from Arena Pharmaceutical (San Diego) to discover new drugs. In fact, Jack Lief, president and CEO of Arena, co-founded TaiGen Biotechnology to expand the applications of CART, a technology that identifies selected G protein-coupled receptors. At Arena, CART uncovered a variety of new drug candidates that are now in clinical trials as treatments for obesity, insomnia, atherosclerosis, and diabetes.
CART is "a very successful technology that we use for discovering exciting new drugs," says Lief. However, "we can't do everything," he adds, so researchers at TaiGen apply CART to infectious disease, inflammation, and cancer indications.
Lief looked toward Taiwan because "the opportunity to start the next Genentech of Asia appealed to me." Traditional biotechnology in Taiwan concentrated in phamaceutical manufacturing, which is not a high value-added business like drug discovery.
Now TaiGen is a significant discovery-based biotechnology company in Asia. "I expect them to be very successful," says Lief. Taiwan scientists are just as talented as those in the U.S., but it's less expensive and more efficient to conduct research in Taiwan, according to Lief. A pool of venture capital also is available in Taiwan to invest in new areas.
Chang-Ming Yang, M.D., Ph.D., a biomedical engineer and physician, merges electronics and biomedicine at Ming-Young Biochemical (Junan Town). The company's remote health care monitoring systems measure physiological functions such as heart rate, respiration, ECG, body temperature, and blood pressure.
A combination of electronics, fiber chemistry, and biotechnology resulted in an electric-textile shirt that senses vital signs when it touches the skin, says Dr. Yang, president of Ming-Young Biochemical. Patients can wear the shirt-like monitor in hospitals or at home. A portable sleep-quality analyzing system looks like a pillow, but it monitors respiratory rate, snoring, and body movement without disturbing the user's sleep.
Medigen Biotechnology (Gueishan Township) focuses on cancer, and the company has several proprietary technologies. The Rapid Bio-Marker Identification system discovers novel cancer specific genes used for the development of new detection and therapeutic tools.
About 100 cancer-related genes have been identified, and their DNA sequences are being used for gene chip prototypes. Medigen scientists plan to develop specific biochips that will detect cancer and determine the type and stage by using a small amount of blood.
Founded by a group of biomedical scientists in 2000, AbGenomics (Taipei) discovers and develops novel therapeutic Mabs for the treatment of cancer and immune-related inflammatory disorders, including allergies, asthma, and autoimmune illnesses. The company's integrated platform combines the discovery of new gene functions, identification of disease target proteins, and validation of animal disease models.
AbGenomics' goal is to create novel therapeutic Mabs to target disease-causing T cells or cancer cells, while sparing protective T cells and normal cells.
Chien Du-shieng, Ph.D., president and CEO of SunTen Phytotech (Jhonghe City), worked in Big Pharma in the U.S. for 20 years. "I was a skeptic about botanical drugs," he admits. When he returned to Taipei to head SunTen Phytotech, he applied Western drug discovery processes to develop technical platforms that authenticate plant extracts and raw materials.
"Botanical drugs have not been given a fair assessment by the scientific community," says Dr. Du-shieng. Botanical drugs fundamentally work the same way as triple combination therapies for cancer or cocktail drugs for HIV. They hit multiple targets simultaneously with synergistic dynamics.