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UNU Programme for Biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNU/BIOLAC)

Programme Coordinator:
  • Dr. José Luis Ramirez, UNU/BIOLAC (Email: unu@reacciun.ve)

    UNU Programme for Biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNU/BIOLAC) was established in January 1988 in Caracas, Venezuela. The Programme promotes the development of biotechnology in the Latin American and Caribbean region. In 2000-2001, the Programme will focus on bio-safety and bio-ethics the major priority areas.

    UNU/BIOLAC Academic Activities

    Strategic directions

    Biotechnology involves a wide variety of biological manipulations such as cell and tissue culture, embryo transplantation, vaccine production, transfer of DNA across sexual barriers, fermentation and various ways of degrading complex macromolecules found in biomass into simpler molecules to serve as sources of food, energy and other useful products. Some of these techniques such as fermentation have evolved over centuries of use by man. However, modern biotechnology is rooted in recombinant DNA technology which is the outgrowth of advances made in the past four decades in biochemistry, molecular biology, immunology and related disciplines. Although modern biotechnology involves the application of research at the cutting edge of basic sciences, it is a technology that is appropriate for solving the problems of nations at various stages of development.

    UNU/BIOLAC started in 1989 as a forerunner of the Institute of Biotechnology whose establishment was recommended by a UNU feasibility study conducted in 1983. Its overall objective is to promote the development of biotechnology in the region through academic exchanges by awarding fellowships for research and advanced training in selected leading biotechnology laboratories within the region and by organizing short training courses.

    To achieve UNU/BIOLAC goals, several actions are taken, including: raising the level of expertise of scientists and others through capacity-building; creating knowledge and carry out problem oriented research in the areas of health, environment, agriculture and food; encouraging discussion of issues of major concern; disseminating results of research; empowering people by discussing risks and benefits of the biotechnological activity and seek a balance between the biotechnology, society and the protection of the environment. Year 2000 was a transition period: new strategies aligned with direction changes at the UNU, a new Coordinator and internal modifications in the organization were the features of year 2000. Below are the major programme developments during year-2001:

    • Strengthening the study on the social aspects of the biotechnology, with emphasis in Bio-ethics and Bio-safetyMany activities in Bio-ethics and Bio-safety took place and with the help of collaborators from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, local committees of Bio-safety and Bio-ethics were established in countries like Peru, Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela. In addition we contributed with suggestions to the writing of local regulations in these areas.
    • Streamlining the Programme organization.UNU Rector appointed a new SAC, and for reviewing fellowship applications, area coordinators were replaced by a network of experts. The organisational structure has been simplified. Reaching wider audiences through personal visits to countries in the region and establishing a more interactive web site. The Coordinator completed a visit to most countries in the Region, informing local science authorities and institutions about the Programme possibilities, and aiming to accelerate application processes an increase the number of applicants, a more interactive web site is being tested.
    • A diagnostic of the state of biotechnology in most countries has been made.From the visit to countries in the region, the Coordinator made a diagnostic of the state of biotechnology in the region, and evaluated the potential of countries and institutions to participate and benefit from UNU/BIOLAC activities (see ANNEX II).
    • Linking Biotech institutions from the developed world with regional institutions for the transference of biotechnological goods. Special efforts are being made to inform countries about existing biotechnological resources promoting technology transfer.
    The activities of the Programme are focused on the following nine specialized priority areas as recommended by the UNU/BIOLAC Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC):
    • Agricultural biotechnology
    • Bioinformatics
    • Genomics
    • Industrial microbiology
    • Industrial relations
    • Manufacturing of advanced biotechnological products
    • Medical biotechnology
    • Molecular biology
    • Molecular pathology

    In the 1998-1999 biennium, the Programme had two active networks. The Network on Brucellosis Research has been concerned with the development of vaccines against Brucella abortus and effective diagnostic methods for its detection in man and livestock. Brucellosis is a zoonotic disease, which affects man and domestic animals with serious economic and social consequences. Support for the research activities of the Latin American laboratories involved in the network is obtained from the Government of Canada. The second network has been concerned with the application of biotechnology to research in tuberculosis which is the most wide-spread single infectious disease causing an estimated seven million deaths each year world-wide. In line with the recommendations of the SAC, support for the Brucellosis network ended in 1999. Activities of the Tuberculosis Research Network ended in 2000 with an international workshop that met all active regional and international researchers, and young researchers and scholarships working in this area. As recommended by the SAC, new UNU/BIOLAC networks will not be supported for more than three years.

    In 2000-2001, the UNU/BIOLAC fellowship activities continued, but with a more flexible and dynamic structure that will allow the rapid and efficient mobilization of young scientists and technicians, both from academia and the private sector. Guidelines for planning fellowships will be in order to achieve the aims of bio-ethic, bio-safety and bioinformatic networks. Fellowships on the rest of scientific priority areas are awarded too. They will be widely advertised through e-mail, over the Internet, and in newspapers in Latin America. The length of fellowships will be reduced to a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of four months with a clear preference for shorter training periods. The Programme will streamline the application and approval process making use of the Internet and electronic (e-mail) applications.

    Two types of courses are being supported by the Programme: (1) international courses organized at designated centres of excellence for which experts from outside the region will be invited; and (2) specialized regional courses which are targeted primarily to serve the needs of the lesser developed countries in the region.

    Current Networks

    The Programme supports networks on bio-ethics, bio-safety and bioinformatics according to the new reorientation. Well defined aims guides the planning of fellowships, training courses, and workshops only addressed to young scientist and professionals identified by the network coordinators and collaborators. The main purpose is to develop a career for these selected participants who will have the responsibility to teach other. This capacity development has a train the trainers approach.


    The programme is coordinated from the UNU/BIOLAC office located in Caracas, Venezuela with technical and administrative back up support provided by the Capacity-Building unit at the UNU Headquarters. The programme coordinator is Dr. José Louis Ramirez and a Scientific Advisory Committee made up of distinguished experts from within and outside the region makes recommendations on programme content and manner of execution.

    Address in Caracas: UNU/BIOLAC, Carretera Nacional Hoyo de la Puerta-Baruta, Instituto de Estudios Avanzados - IDEA, Edificio Bolivar, Planta Baja, Baruta 1080, Estado, Miranda, Venezuela. Bus: +58-212/962-1644 or 962-1605; Bus Fax: +58-212/962-1120; E-mail: unu@reacciun.ve


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