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Vietnam is making rapid progress in developing biotechnology for a healthier society, says biotech expert Thai Nguyen.

Vietnam's economy has grown rapidly in the past two decades, as has its activity in technological fields such as software, electronics and computing. Both the government and international funders are supporting such efforts.

But equally deserving of support, if less well-publicised, are efforts by Vietnamese researchers to develop biotechnology to improve healthcare in the country.

Vietnam has no shortage of health challenges, from infectious diseases such as flu to rising rates of chronic illnesses such as diabetes or cancer. Like many developing countries, it also has to contend with increasing resistance to drugs for killer diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.

Biotechnology has the potential to address these problems — and save thousands of lives— by providing sophisticated tools to prevent, diagnose and treat disease. In the developed world, it has already proved its worth in groundbreaking treatments for diseases such as haemophilia, and techniques for detecting genetic diseases.

Now there is increasing evidence that Vietnamese researchers are rising to the challenge of harnessing biotechnology for their own healthier society.

Rapid progress

In-country biotechnology development began in the mid-1990s, when researchers at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Ho Chi Minh City conducted a series of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) experiments. 

PCR is a DNA-based diagnostic method for quickly and accurately detecting pathogens. The team's efforts, in collaboration with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), led to a rapid expansion in the use of PCR in the country.

The technique is now widely used throughout Vietnam to detect various local influenza viruses as well as diagnosing malaria and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.

But Vietnam's progress in biotechnology is not limited to PCR.

Across the country, new biotechnology research centres to tackle cancer, diabetes, and antibiotic-resistant infections are being planned or already up and running. Some of these are well-stocked with the latest equipment.

For example, the Institute of Biotechnology and the Military Medical University in Hanoi are well equipped with microarrays, high-resolution electron microscopes and mass spectrometers. These centres are working on proteomic and genomic research to develop treatments for unmet diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.

Some of these research powerhouses are already making significant progress in therapeutic applications of biotechnology. For example, NanoGen Inc. in Ho Chi Minh City will soon provide both Vietnam and international markets with relatively cheap cancer treatments by producing biosimilar monoclonal antibodies that can specifically target cancer cells.

Others focus on tailoring biotechnology to diseases prevalent in Vietnam. For example, Vabiotech Company in Hanoi uses a reverse genetics approach to synthesise vaccines for Japanese encephalitis and hepatitis B, which affects many Vietnamese people and increases the risk of liver cancer.

In Nha Trang, the Institute of Vaccine Research is producing safe vaccines for the country's most common diseases, including tuberculosis, tetanus and diphtheria, among others.

And while Vietnam is progressing in applied biotechnology, it is not ignoring basic research. Ngoc K. Phan at the University of Ho Chi Minh City, for example, has done pioneering work in establishing embryonic and adult stem cell lines for planned clinical studies.

More to be done

Across the country, I see a strong desire to catch up and a thirst for broader biotechnology applications. Early international collaboration and support has been critical to the success stories.

Organisations such as the Asia-Pacific International Molecular Biology Network and UCSF Global Health Sciences have made a significant impact by providing assistance in networking, training and sponsorship for their collaborators in Vietnam. 

And multibillion dollar investments in science parks, such as the Saigon Hi-Tech Park in Ho Chi Minh City, by industry giants including Intel and Nidec have promoted scientific entrepreneurship across Vietnam. These developments are providing opportunities to invest in Vietnam's biotechnology potential.  

The national government is also stepping up its support to biotechnology. Inspired by breakthroughs in gene therapy in China, it has, for example, established the Vietnam Gene Therapy Center within a major public hospital in Hanoi.

But there are still challenges ahead. In particular, the country's biotechnology researchers need stronger infrastructure, more institutional and external funding, opportunities for international collaboration, and better access to peer-review journals and networking opportunities.

Vietnam has already achieved the critical mass required to establish multi-disciplinary biotechnology research and development that meets international standards.

Perhaps most importantly, we have intrinsic qualities and resources to develop biotechnology as a major force for modernising the country. Our strong tradition of medical practice and knowledge-based talents assure that we are capable of acquiring advanced biotechnologies to meet future challenges.

Vietnamese researchers have ample opportunities to make home-grown discoveries and applications of great value not only to Vietnam, but also for the global scientific community.

Thai Nguyen is head of the Biotechnology Division at Saigon Hi-Tech Park in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.