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Biotechnology researchers should focus their efforts on developing cheap and simple molecular-based techniques to diagnose diseases such as AIDS and malaria if they are to maximise improvements in health in poor nations, according to a survey of leading scientists.

Research into genetically engineered vaccines should also come high up the research agenda, according to the survey, which asked an international group of 28 health experts and scientists to rank biotechnologies in order of their importance to healthcare worldwide.

"Current inequities in global health present major ethical challenges to the international community," says one of the authors of the study, Peter Singer, director of the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics (JCB). "This study ranks the most promising tools being created by harnessing this knowledge, offering unprecedented opportunities to address the growing health divide between rich and poor countries."

Other technologies that were ranked highly included: alternatives to needle injections, such as inhalable drugs, which could make vaccine and drug delivery cheaper and safer; the development of genetically modified (GM) bacteria and plants that could clean up contaminated air, water and soil; and the sequencing of pathogen genomes to understand their underlying biology.

Technologies such as genetic modification to enhance the nutritional content of staple crops, and vaccines and microbicides to allow women to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, were considered less of a priority.

Abdallah Daar, one of the study’s authors and director of the JCB Programme in Applied Ethics and Biotechnology, says that the findings — which appear in this week’s issue of Nature Genetics — could help guide strategies to address global health problems.

"Funding agencies, international organisations, investment funds, pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology companies and so on — both in the developing and the developed world — must focus their attention on the most promising technologies in order to acquire the maximum benefit from [their limited] resources."

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Link to report ‘Top 10 Biotechnologies for Improving Global Health’