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Biotech Faces Its Past and Future

Annual conference focuses on persistent and emerging challenges

by Rick Mullin
June 14, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 24


Billed as a kind of homecoming, the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s 2004 exposition and conference convened last week in San Francisco, the reputed birthplace of biotechnology and one of the most diverse biotech industry hubs in the world.

This year’s event, with more than 16,000 people in attendance, had an air of nostalgia, with a farewell address by departing BIO President Carl B. Feldbaum and presentations by prominent figures associated with key breakthroughs over the past two decades. Talk show journalist Charlie Rose hosted an opening session panel consisting of founders of pioneer biotech companies who assessed the progress made by the industry over the past 20 years and offered a prognosis for the future.

“It’s gone faster than I would have ever dreamed, and it’s taken more money than I ever dreamed,” said Thomas J. Perkins, the founding chairman of Genentech. Chiron cofounder William J. Rutter pointed out that increasingly sophisticated techniques are guiding researchers toward more curative biotech medicines; however, severe obstacles exist to developing these medicines at a reasonable cost and within a reasonable time frame.

Regulatory bureaucracy and the high level of uncertainty regarding success for expensive drug development efforts will have a chilling effect, Rutter said. Leroy Hood, president and cofounder of the Institute for Systems Biology, added that the rise of personalized medicines will intensify the need for regulatory streamlining and reductions in the cost of drug development.

Emerging issues such as bioterrorism and biotech drugs and foods that combat obesity figured prominently in conference sessions and on the exhibit floor. Former FDA commissioner David A. Kessler, now dean of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for medical affairs at the University of California, San Francisco, told attendees at a Sunday brunch conference that obesity is a root cause of debilitating and deadly diseases including diabetes, arthritis, gallstones, and several forms of cancer. “We won’t give patients much help if we try to fix each spoke of the wheel and do nothing to fix the hub,” Kessler said.

In the exhibit hall, the Russian pavilion highlighted advances made by the U.S. State Department’s Office of Proliferation Threat Reduction and various Russian scientific organizations in redirecting one-time nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons facilities in the former Soviet Union to pharmaceutical and other applications. The program recently turned to antibioterrorism, with Russia’s State Research Center of Virology & Biotechnology taking the lead on converting biological weapons operations into biodefense vaccine programs.

Meanwhile, Kevin Cox, vice president of biotechnology at Avecia, said his company expects to hear by August on its bid to supply the U.S. government with 25 million dosages of an anthrax vaccine it has been developing as part of an existing contract with the government. Cox said that Avecia, which is competing against VaxGen on the anthrax vaccine contract, is also developing a plague vaccine.

A sizable antibiotech demonstration on Tuesday, organized by a San Francisco group called Reclaim the Commons, served as a reminder that the industry still faces strong opposition on issues such as genetically modified foods and stem cell research. The group estimated that 500 protestors faced at least double that number of police officers. Some 150 protestors were arrested.


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