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NAS Issues Report on Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology
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By Lynn L. Bergeson and Margaret R. Graham

On March 9, 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) announced the release (pre-publication version) of a new report:  Preparing for Future Products of Biotechnology.  Pursuant to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's (OSTP) July 2, 2015, memorandum, “Modernizing the Regulatory System for Biotechnology Products,” NAS was tasked with looking into the future and describing the possible future products of biotechnology that will arise over the next five to ten years, as well as providing some insights that can help shape the capabilities within the agencies as they move forward.  More information regarding the July 2015 memorandum is available on our website under the key phrase Biobased Products, Biotechnology.

Via an ad hoc committee, the Committee on Future Biotechnology Products and Opportunities to Enhance Capabilities of the Biotechnology Regulatory System, NAS developed this report through several months of gathering and synthesizing information from several sources, including:  74 speakers over the course of three in-person meetings and eight webinars, including one presented by Lynn L. Bergeson; responses to its request for information from a dozen federal agencies; statements solicited from members of the public at its in-person meetings; written comments through the duration of the study; and recent NAS studies related to future products of biotechnology.

The report presents conclusions concerning the future biotechnology products themselves, as well the challenges that federal agencies will face in regulating them, which include:

  • The bioeconomy is growing rapidly and the U.S. regulatory system needs to provide a balanced approach for consideration of the many competing interests in the face of this expansion;
  • The profusion of biotechnology products over the next five to ten years has the potential to overwhelm the U.S. regulatory system, which may be exacerbated by a disconnect between research in regulatory science and expected uses of future biotechnology products;
  • Regulators will face difficult challenges as they grapple with a broad array of new types of bio-technology products -- for example, cosmetics, toys, pets, and office supplies -- that go beyond contained industrial uses and traditional environmental release;
  • The safe use of new biotechnology products requires rigorous, predictable, and transparent risk-analysis processes whose comprehensiveness, depth, and throughput mirror the scope, scale, complexity, and tempo of future biotechnology applications.

The report provides three recommendations for federal agencies in responding to these challenges, which it states should be taken to “enhance the ability of the biotechnology regulatory system to oversee the consumer safety and environmental protection required for future biotechnology products”:

  1. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other agencies involved in regulation of future bio-technology products should increase scientific capabilities, tools, expertise, and horizon scanning in key areas of expected growth of biotechnology, including natural, regulatory, and social sciences. 
  2. EPA, FDA, and USDA should increase their use of pilot projects to advance understanding and use of ecological risk assessments and benefit analyses for future biotechnology products that are unfamiliar and complex and to prototype new approaches for iterative risk analyses that incorporate external peer review and public participation. 
  3. The National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and other agencies that fund bio-technology research with the potential to lead to new biotechnology products should increase their investments in regulatory science and link research and education activities to regulatory-science activities.  

Commentary

The report is well-written and contains an impressive amount of new, relevant, and important information.  The Committee participants are to be commended for an important new piece of scholarship in this area.

The report’s conclusions are also significant, but not entirely unexpected.  For those of us working in this space, we have recognized for years the lack of clarity regarding jurisdictional boundaries, the paucity of government resources, and the urgent need for regulatory clarity and significantly enhanced funding.  Unfortunately, given current Trump Administration efforts to diminish government funding for EPA, FDA, and elsewhere, the well-crafted and spot-on recommendations may tragically fall on deaf ears.  Shareholders should carefully review the report and work hard to ensure the recommendations are implemented.  The consequences of failing to “increase scientific capabilities, tools, expertise, and horizon scanning in key areas of expected growth of biotechnology, including natural regulatory, and social sciences” -- the number one recommendation in the report -- are too great to ignore.