Biotechnology research and development is often very expensive and can take long periods of time. Mitoquinone, the first drug to be tested and manufactured in New Zealand, was in development for at least 10 years before April 2008, when it was shown to have positive results on patients with the hepatitis C virus.
Most New Zealand biotechnology companies are small and cannot afford to fully fund their own research. Biotechnology research is usually carried out by government institutions or universities, often in partnership with private companies. Auckland is the main base for biotechnology research in New Zealand.
Sharing ideas and expertise with other countries is important for New Zealand’s biotechnology researchers. The high level of scientific expertise, complex equipment and large amounts of funding required make international collaborations essential for most major projects.
In 2008 one of the largest biotechnology exercises under way worldwide was the Physiome Project, a multinational effort to model the human body scientifically. Separate research teams in different countries were working on each of the 12 main organ systems.
The University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute collaborated with the University of Oxford in the UK on the cardiovascular (heart and blood circulation) system. A ‘virtual’ human heart was created by microscopic analysis of thousands of paper-thin slices of real hearts. This will enable medical researchers to safely replicate and study digitally various types of heart disorders and their treatment.
By studying sheep on Auckland’s One Tree Hill, Professor Graham (Mont) Liggins discovered how an unborn lamb lets its mother know that it is ready to be born. Biotechnological research into this discovery enabled doctors to save the lives of premature babies and prevent brain damage in infants. This discovery was regarded as one of the greatest single contributions to the advancement of human health worldwide.
Bioprospecting, a branch of biotechnology, is the search for natural resources such as plants, animals and microorganisms that could be used to develop valuable products, for example insecticides or medicines. New Zealand is a good site for bioprospecting because of its many unique species, its isolation from other countries, the large marine exclusive economic zone, and traditional Māori knowledge of the environment.
Once the useful properties in an organism have been identified, researchers look for ways to apply them.
Researchers have discovered that white rot fungi produce a compound that kills the bacteria causing a type of stomach ulcer. The compound is produced in such tiny quantities that it cannot be used commercially. A New Zealand company is making an artificial copy of it which can be made in sufficient quantities to produce a medicine.
Another New Zealand firm, Living Cell Technologies, develops cell treatments for neurolgical disorders in humans. They collect cells from a unique herd of disease-free pigs that evolved from pigs left in the subantarctic Auckland Islands.