In July 1993, three young students from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) decided to transform classroom learning into more efficient methods of analysis for diagnosing human and animal pathologies. The association of a biologist and two agronomy engineer with a specialization in agricultural microbiology resulted in the creation of Simbios Produtos Biotecnológicos, a company that is a pioneer in Brazil in the technique of molecular diagnosis – a method of analysis based on genetic research – applied to industry.
“In food quality control, molecular diagnosis is a test of high reliability and agility, essential characteristics for catering to stricter consumer markets”, says biologist André Fonseca, who splits the capital of the partnership with Nilo Ikuta and Vagner Lunge. Some consumers of poultry, chiefly Muslims and Jews, demand not only a control over the quality of the food, but also a certificate of origin of the feed given to the birds. As they do not eat pork, they place a restriction on any pork byproduct in animal feed as well.
“The technique of molecular diagnosis is embedded on the direct analysis of the sequence of the nucleic acids present in the DNA, to identify and characterize organisms, pathologies and genetic characteristics of interest”, Fonseca reports. He points out that these techniques have been applied to detect diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites in animals and humans. “The methodologies for quantifying make it possible to establish both prognoses for treatment and for monitoring, as in the case of infection by HIV, where the desire is to keep the virus population in lowest concentration possible in the individual bearer.”
In agroindustry, molecular techniques make it possible to identify, with the utmost precision, potentially pathogenic strains that can occur in agroindustrial production, such as the Avian Influenza , responsible for causing serious epidemiological problems, with devastating effects on production and even hurting. Large pork and poultry food producers and exporter installed in the south of the country, such as Sadia, Perdigão and Chapecó, are amongst Simbios’s customers. The method is also used to determine specific serotypes of salmonella, usually associated with avian pathologies (Gallinarium, Pullorium, Enteritidis and Typhimurium).
In these almost ten years of life, Simbios has always been linked to the university. Since its creation and up to 1999, the company was housed in the incubator of the Biotechnology Center of the UFRGS’s School of Science and Technology. In this period, R$ 300,000 was invested in research, coming from scholarships from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and from the State of Rio Grande do Sul Research Support Foundation (Fapergs), besides funds from the researchers themselves. Starting in 1996, Simbios began to sell its products to the national meat industry, to clinical testing and pathology laboratories, as well as to hospitals, health departments and centers for epidemiological control.
In 1999, it won the Finep Award for Technological Innovation, awarded annually by the Financier of Studies and Projects to small technology-based companies that were most outstanding in the period. In that same year, it left its address at UFGRS to set itself up on the campus of the Lutheran University of Brazil (Ulbra), in Canoas, in Greater Porto Alegre, at the invitation of this institution’s pro-rector for Research and Postgraduate Studies, Professor Edmundo Kanam Marques. The connection between the partners and the academic world is not restricted to physical space. Ikuta and Lunge give lessons in the postgraduate course in biotechnology at the Rio Grande do Sul university.
Molecular diagnosis, in spite of being more expensive than the conventional kind, is capable of determining with precision the existence of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV. After an analysis of the genetic information from the patient’s blood sample, it is possible to state with precision whether he is contaminated and the degree of threat that the disease poses. Also in the area of human health, molecular diagnosis is also very efficient in detecting pathogens that cause pneumonia, the viruses of hepatitis B and C, HTLV (with its types I and II), Chlamydia trachomatis and the human papilloma virus (HPV), the last two associated with gynecological cancer.
In Fonseca’s assessment, there is still much to be done in the area of molecular diagnosis in Brazil, but financial support is lacking. In the United States, for example, the use of molecular diagnosis is obligatory for any examination of a human virus. Fonseca believes that there is a great demand that has not yet been met, particularly with regard to industrial molecular diagnosis. “For its continental dimensions, the country has the conditions for housing another four companies with a profile similar to ours, in niches that are complementary to Simbios’s”, he reckons. By his calculations, those who are interested in going into this area need some US$ 250,000 to invest in equipment and specialized personnel. “But it is a task that takes time, because it calls for a lot of research and coming to maturity”, he adds.