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7-Business: Malaysia puts biovalley under wraps

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TITLE:  Malaysia puts biovalley under wraps
SOURCE: Nature, UK, Vol 424 (118), by David Cyranoski
DATE:   Jul 10, 2003

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Malaysia puts biovalley under wraps

[KUALA LUMPUR] The Malaysian government is quietly launching a major
project to harness the country's abundant natural biodiversity to create
a viable biotechnology industry.

Over the next three years, it plans to invest 600 million ringgits
(US$160 million) to build three research institutes, dedicated to
molecular biology, plant biotechnology and drug development. Based at an
80-hectare campus in Dengkil, 45 kilometres south of Kuala Lumpur, the
institutes are scheduled to open in 2006.

But in contrast to similar initiatives elsewhere, BioValley Malaysia is
being set up in an atmosphere that borders on secrecy. Although Malaysian
biologists welcome the initiative, most won't discuss it on the record.

Even government officials don't want to talk about the project, which was
announced by Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad in May. "We want to get
the project off the ground rather than talk about it," says an official
at the science ministry.

A university researcher, who didn't want to be named, says that Mahathir
wants to keep the project low profile, after a comparable information-
technology initiative in 1997 failed to meet its advertised goals. The
government is also sensitive to charges that it is allowing private
investors to exploit Malaysia's rich biodiversity.

This biodiversity distinguishes the project from other biotechnology
parks, says the ministry spokesperson. Three companies have already
agreed to locate themselves in the park and the government is negotiating
with another 20.

Researchers are already tapping into the country's biodiversity. A
collaboration between several Malaysian institutes and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, for example, is looking at the plant tongkat ali
-- used in Malaysia to treat impotency.

The government hopes that the biovalley will enable firms to develop
drugs locally by bioprospecting in Malaysia. But some analysts doubt
whether Malaysian investors are ready to back long-term, research-
intensive ventures, such as biotech companies. And researchers say that
bureaucratic restrictions on their mobility, and on the efficient filing
of patents, will make it difficult for a biotechnology sector to take root.


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