Business contacts

Archimedes has often been critical of the media for its ‘snapshot’ reporting of science. Stories are usually brief and irregular and often once-only. Rarely is a piece of useful research tracked over time. Taking a dose of his own medicine, Archimedes takes up a tale he began in June 1999.

The story so far. In the early 1990s Dr Peter Steinberg, a marine ecologist from the University of New South Wales, discovered a small red seaweed in Botany Bay that keeps its fronds free of bacteria. It does so by manufacturing and secreting a compound, a type of furanone, which jams chemical communication between bacteria and prevents them from organising to form films on surfaces. These biofilms are a significant source of contamination, so the furanone acts as a useful antibiotic, and one to which it is difficult to build up resistance.

In marine environments, bacterial films pave the way for the attachment of larger ‘fouling’ organisms such as barnacles and algae. So, disrupting formation of the films can prevent biofouling, which increases drag on ship hulls by more than 40 per cent and is also a major problem in the aquaculture industry. Steinberg and a microbiologist colleague, Professor Staffan Kjelleberg, established a Centre for Marine Bio-Fouling and Bio-Innovation, to explore the potential of furanones.

About a year ago Biosignal Ltd listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. But its first product, planned for release in 2007, will have nothing to do with biofouling. It will be a contact lens with a furanone coating. And the reason is possibly the same as that which has led to Steinberg’s appointment as the new company’s director of research, not its managing director: good business sense.

Contact lenses represent a much bigger market (more than $5 billion a year worldwide) than marine anti-fouling (about $1 billion). And the furanone-coated lens is an easier product to develop. About one contact lens wearer in five contracts a bacterial infection known as acute red-eye, and about one in 100 of these goes on to full-blown microbial keratitis, which can result in vision loss. Testing suggests that furanone coatings are effective in preventing this. Because the coating is not actually taken into the body, the necessary safety testing is not as extensive as for a drug, and can be undertaken quite quickly. Also, Australian R&D in contact lens technology is already well respected by the industry.

The Biosignal story is a good illustration of the value of business people involved in the commercialisation of research. Lack of commercial sense is the reason why so many companies founded by scientists either fail or are taken over before becoming profitable.

Elias Zerhouni, director of the huge US research funding agency the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently banned NIH researchers from acting as consultants to drug, medical and biotech companies, and asked them to limit their shareholdings in these firms. He is concerned about a growing crisis in public confidence in the objectivity of research.

If we continue to encourage our scientists to become involved in the commercialisation of their findings—through lack of funding—then to whom shall we turn when we need objective advice on which technologies to adopt, and what foods and drugs are cheap, effective and safe?

Conflicts of interest and the consequent erosion of public trust in science are serious problems in the US. Let’s ensure, by adequate funding of public science and rigorous attention to business ethics, that Australia does not tread a similar path. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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