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Future R&D Environments: A Report for the National Institute of Standards and Technology
control them will require many technological advances in areas such as synthesis, analysis, computational chemistry, and bioinformatics.
Pharmaceutical companies are also focusing on better ways to deliver drugs, in part as a way to extend their patents. One quest is for better ways to deliver proteins orally. Most proteins used now as therapeutics must be injected, and with a greater number of proteins entering the medical armamentarium in the next 10 years, solving the problems of oral delivery has taken on new urgency. The various drug-delivery methods in development include new inhalation approaches, extended time-release injections, and transdermal administrations. One example of a new transdermal device consists of a tiny pump attached to the skin by an adhesive pad. Pressing a button pushes a needle just below the skin and delivers the drug at a constant rate. Its developers envision that it will be used at first as a way to deliver pain medications.
Societal pressures may slow innovations in agricultural biotechnology in the next few years, but research will continue, propelled in part by a simple statistic: The world’s population is predicted to increase from 6 to 8 billion by 2030. With one-third more humans to feed, people may have no choice but to accept genetically engineered foods.
Among the genetically modified plants currently in fields are insect-resistant corn and herbicide-resistant soybeans, corn, and canola. The potential benefits of genetically modified crops include fewer environmental problems from pesticides and herbicides, increased yields, enhanced nutrition, drought resistance, and even the production of the building blocks of polymers and the remediation of polluted soils, sediments, and aquifers. However, there are unresolved questions about potential risks as well, which have led to opposition to genetically altered foods, particularly in Europe and Japan. These concerns include the possibilities that a gene-altered plant will become an invasive species and cause ecological damage; that plants producing pesticidal proteins may harm nontargeted organisms and/or have an adverse effect on species that feed on the targeted pests; and that new viruses may evolve in virus-resistant plants. Resolving these issues, as well as the lingering controversy over human safety, poses an immediate challenge for researchers and will be necessary for the acceptance of genetically altered plants. In many ways, the future of food produced by biotechnology—at least in the near term—depends on persuading the public of the solid science behind it.
Announced last December, the first sequencing of the genome of a higher plant—the weed Arabidopsis thaliana—and the nearly completed mapping of the