BIOTECHNOLOGY: Latvian biotech industry rising from the dead

  • 2008-09-18
  • By Kristina Pauksens

For those who grew up watching horror movies, biotechnology means smoked filled Victorian laboratories and scientists laughing maniacally as they reanimate dead flesh. It's an unfair image. Scientists are not interested in doing bizarre experiments in genetic engineering or bringing the dead back to life. They can prolong life and improve the quality of it. The Baltics used to be a center for this branch of science but as the industry has commercialized, it has suffered against the big players from the United States and Germany. Now it is fighting back. We discover how and why. We also take a look at the Estonian Genome project which planned to catalog the DNA of every single Estonian citizen. This week's Industry Insider is about biotechnology.

RIGA - Latvia's biotechnology industry is showing promising signs of life.
The regrowth of the industry is a success story in progress, something of which Latvians can be proud. After all, Latvia's scientists and specialists were once considered pioneers in the field, and the capacity still exists today.

Since Latvia's integration into the European Union, demand for biotech development has grown. The University of Latvia's Institute of Microbiology and Biotechnology, founded in 1993 as the successor and inheritor of rights of the Latvian Academy of Sciences Institute of Microbiology, has been reinvigorated since the fall of the USSR.
The industry's main research fields, begun in the Soviet era, continue to be explored today, including genetics, bioengineering and the study of microbiological processes affecting agriculture and the environment. Food technologies, the fermentation process and biogas are also important areas of research at both the University of Latvia and at Latvia's Agricultural University in Jelgava.

There are also important developments in the private sector. According to ScanBalt, a borderless biotechnology network in the Baltic Sea region, there are currently 28 biotech companies active in Latvia. This is one area in which Latvia and Lithuania are outshining Estonia, whose biotech industries are described as "embryonic" in ScanBalt's report.
Dr. Juris Vanags, managing director of the Biotehniskais Centrs, is an expert on the challenges and successes facing the industry in the transition from Soviet times to the present day. He described some of the top biotechnical companies in Latvia as follows.

"For investment, the number one biggest in Latvia is the Biomedical Research Centre," Vanags said.
Of the large companies, the pharmaceutical company Grindex stands out as a top performer. Small and medium-sized enterprises, however, also play a large role. These fall into three categories: bio-equipment, in which Latvia is a European leader; biomedicine, in which Latvia has progressed, but is not yet at the EU level; and environmental or "green" biotechnology.

Green biotech has become important since Latvia joined the EU, as membership placed many environmental protection requirements on the country. In this field, microorganisms are used to clean up oil spills, to improve air quality and to make agriculture more environmentally friendly. With the science to harness the power of micro-organisms, the industry is showing signs of recovery from the heavy blow dealt by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the 1990s development in biotechnology was essentially stopped. Many large factories and plants were shut down and destroyed. Baltic biotechnology research was crippled and left at a bare minimum.
That decade was the biotech industry's nadir. "It practically bankrupted two of the biggest factories in Latvia, in Livani and Riga," Vanags said. Vanags explained that the output of these factories 's animal feed products in Livani and biomedical products in Riga 's had been connected with the Soviet market, and most of the products had been shipped to locations in present-day Russia. "The demand changed radically," he said, "and it was not easy to convert the products to another market."

According to the Latvian Investment and Development Agency, one-quarter of all Soviet drug technology was designed and manufactured here. "Latvia was the principle location for [pharmaceuticals biotech] sectors in the former Soviet Union," according to the agency.

Biomedical research was also important in Soviet Latvia 's and it, too, faced death in the transition times. One of the most important of the laboratories participating in the Soviet cell-free protein synthesis project was located in the Augusts Kirhensteins Institute of Microbiology in Riga.