In October 1980, a relatively unknown company from the San Francisco Bay area called Genentech created history on the New York Stock Exchange by raising US$ 35 million in its IPO. Though the figure itself is puny compared to those bandied about during the dotcom bubble, the significance of the Initial Public Offering was that this was the first listing by a biotech company which did not yet have a single product to sell. And yet, the expectations of biotechnology changing the world with designer drugs, genetically modified (GM) foods and organisms were so high that everyone wanted a piece of the action. A lot has changed in the intervening 25 years—biotechnology is now big business. More than 4000 biotechnology firms across the globe earn over $ 50 billion in revenues. By some estimates, the total investment in biotechnology is over $ 350 billion so far. And unlike at the time of the Genentech IPO, biotechnology products now touch almost every aspect of our lives- GM Soya,
Bt cotton which is resistant to herbicides, transgenic animals which produce drugs, human insulin, anti-cancer drugs, more effective vaccines, and bacteria which can clean up toxic waste dumps. Indeed, biotechnology is being seen as the panacea for many of our problems.
The boundaries between the domains of pure academic research and research for corporate profits have always been blurred in biotechnology. One of the founders of Genentech, Herbert Boyer, for instance, was a pioneer in the field of recombinant DNA technology (the technique of splicing fragments of DNA and ligating them into other cells). This tension between ‘greater public good’ and ‘corporate greed’ was best demonstrated during the last phases of the Human Genome Project when one of the key scientists of the Project, Craig Venter proposed using the genetic map for profit rather than putting it in the public domain. The massive protests this idea caused indicated the underlying contradiction between public good and private profit in this lucrative industry.
Kaushik Sundar Rajan’s book under review is an attempt to explore the overlapping contours of biotechnology and political economy. The book’s title takes from its subject matter—the book is ‘… an analysis and a theorization of the life sciences, especially as they pertain to biomedicine, with an analysis and theorization of capitalist frameworks within which this technology increasingly operates’. Hence Biocapital.
The tools which the author uses to understand the complex world of corporate capitalism and cutting edge science (mostly biotechnology and biomedicine though also bioinformatics) are varied. The book attempts, ‘… to make social theoretical interventions in science studies and political economy by using empirical ethnographic material’. He has conducted fieldwork in biotechnology laboratories in the US and in India. He has interviewed key scientists, science administrators, entrepreneurs, and even N. Chandra Babu Naidu! On the theoretical front, his basic framework is a Marxist understanding of political economy together with the French thin-ker, Michel Foucault’s seminal work on the archa-eology of human sciences, The Order of Things.
For the most part, the author deals with drug development in the US and in India. The drug industry is a massive one—the global spending on prescription drugs alone in 2006 was more than $ 600 billion. It is also very different from most other industries like software- the cost of developing and testing drugs to be sold is so prohibitive that only the very big survive (the average cost of bringing a drug to market, according to one study was more than $400 million. Pfizer spends more than $10 billion on research and development annually); the product, once developed is usually sold at monopoly prices guaranteeing super profits (the best selling chole-sterol busting drug Lipitor from Pfizer, generated more than $12 billion in sales in 2005!).
Since the cost of developing a new drug is so large, increasingly companies are trying to find alternatives to the traditional method of trying out thousands of molecules to find the magical one which works and which will survive the rigorous testing regimes. And here is where biotechnology has played an important role. The really innovative biotech companies are usually small (by comparison to the drug companies) and hence do not have the wherewithal to bring a drug to market. Consequently, they carry out the ‘upstream’ research while the drug companies do the testing, getting regulatory approvals and marketing which turn a molecule into a gold mine of revenue streams.
Sundar Rajan discusses the nature of drug research, the power relations between big and small companies, between big companies and public laboratories and increasingly between the big pharmaceutical companies and companies in the developing countries. The restrictive patent regime, especially for drugs has been a matter of contention and numerous lawsuits between companies. Big pharmaceutical companies which hold patents to anti retroviral drugs for instance came up for a lot of criticism when they threatened to sue the Indian companies making cheaper imitations of their patented products.
Intellectual Property Rights were one of the main reasons for the multilateral trade agreement being delayed for a long time. India for instance resisted the imposition of product patents (as opposed to process patents) in drug manufacture for a long time but finally signed the WTO imposed patent agreement in 1995. Under the previous patent regime, Indian drug industry made enormous progress by reverse-engineering patented drug molecules. However, with the WTO agreement, the drug industry was to become WTO compliant by 2005, entailing a major paradigm shift in the industry. As several commentators have warned, this shift will have a huge impact on drug prices and availability in our country where a major part of the spending on health is private.
The book contains a very insightful discussion on the tensions arising from ‘global market terrains that structure technology and capital flows between centers of innovation such as the United States and aspiring “Third World” peripheries such as India’. The author did field work in Hyderabad, Mumbai and New Delhi to explore how private capital is tying up with the government to set up ‘world class’ facilities to carry out research and testing. The so-called Genome Valley near Hyderabad with the ICICI Knowledge Park, the WellSpring hospital in downtown Mumbai are the two examples extensively described by the author. These kinds of setups, as the author shows, are portents of a very significant shift in the way basic and industrial research is conducted in the country.
Sunder Rajan’s work is an interesting mixture of very powerful, and may I add, very dense theoretical arguments together with interviews and anecdotes from his fieldwork. The theoretical arguments are to be expected since this book grew out of the author’s dissertation at the Program in Science, Technology & Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The theoretical insights will be useful for scholars in the emerging area of Science and Technology Studies. These make the book a bit too abstruse for the general reader. However, the discussion of the biotech industry and the descriptions of his fieldwork make for very interesting reading even for the interested lay reader. Given the importance of biotechnology in our present context, it would be good if the author could provide the lay reader with another book which could be as insightful as this academic tome, and yet be a bit more ‘reader friendly’ for the ordinary reader.
The domestication of wild species of grass, somewhere in the Levant, around 10,000 years ago was possibly the biggest ‘scientific’ revolution in the history of humankind. This marked the beginning of agriculture which made possible settled communities and consequently civilization as we know it. Biotechnology holds immense potential for changing human history. The possible advances in agriculture and health could prove to be as revolutionary as the agricultural revolution. What forms these will take and how they would impact the vast majority of the population, will depend not only on the scientific possibilities, but also on the politico-economic structures within which research is situated.
Shobhit Mahajan is in the Department of Physics & Astrophysics, University of Delhi, Delhi.