The relatively new field of biotechnology challenges the mind and stimulates the imagination with its innovative approaches to disease im-munology, genetic engineering and biochemical developments.

But the breakthroughs that scientific expertise have wrought are being slowed to a walk by the bureaucratic machinery in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Overwhelmed by highly technical patent searches in a little-known field for which little precedent exists, the Patent Office has accumulated a backlog of 8,213 applications for biotechnical patents. Some applicants must wait almost four years for final action.Moreover, the General Accounting Office notes that the inventory of unexamined biotechnology patent applications increased by about 33 percent in 1989 and 1990. The average waiting time for a patent is 26 months, compared to an overall average of 19 months in other technological fields.

Obviously, such delay causes America to lose ground in its conquest of the biotechnical frontier. Struggling young companies are put at risk, the world is deprived of new lifesaving drugs or environmental improvements, and faster-moving technology in Europe and Asia is gaining the edge.

Quite rightly, care must be exercised that patent rights not be issued without complete understanding of what is involved, plus assurance that the idea is indeed new, useful and significantly different. However, bright scientists of unlimited potential should not be put in the frustrating straitjacket of unreasonable delay.

The Patent Office's lack of experienced examiners in biotechnology has caused much of the delay. The reason given is that, though biotechnological patent examiners were increased from 91 to 112 during the past year, the Patent Office lacks experienced senior staff to train the new employees.

How about using some experienced junior staff to contend with this problem, or hiring help from outside the office to give training that in-house is obviously coming about too slowly, too little and too late?

It does the world no good to have potentially useful discoveries buried under paper in a government office.