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Biotechnology goes big

June 21, 2005 By Sabine Louët This article courtesy of Nature News.

Thousands of delegates from around the world have congregated for the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Philadelphia. Sabine Louët, news editor for Nature Biotechnology, reports back from the scene.

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Day 3: Fun and games

At first sight, BIO 2005 may look like a giant corporate fun fair.

In the massive exhibition hall, companies sport all kinds of toys and gizmos to attract the attention of passers by: from remote-controlled car races to free fish-shaped cuddly toys. Others host a draw for the latest gadgets. Judging by the stacks of business cards piling up for the competitions, iPods and mp3 players are the most sought-after prizes. Others, including the Australian booth, prefer capturing their audience by offering wine. Pretty much anything goes. . .

But there is more than just fun and games going on here. For one thing, you can tell from the layout who is the keenest to expand their biotech horizons, seeking the level of attention usually reserved for big players. A quick survey of the floor map shows that the Canadian booth takes up the same area as two of the most important US biotech hubs: California and Massachusetts, home to Amgen and Genentech. This despite the fact that activity in the Canadian biotech sector isn't nearly as developed as in those two biohubs put together. With a booth that takes over about a twelfth of the room, Canada is clearly demonstrating its desire to become a force to be reckoned with.

Put together, other small player US states that aim to be biotech hubs, including Florida and Kentucky, make up a fourth of the overall floor space. Similarly, all of the European regions put together take up a little less than a fifth of the room, which matches up nicely with projections on how important they would like to see their sector become.

In the midst of this battle for attention, deals are being initiated or completed in the secrecy of back rooms. And the corridors are buzzing with people making contacts with companies that could become their next business partners.

In the end, after wandering the hall and listening in to the high-powered chat, I have learned at least one thing. Whether the booths are manned by a small nanobiotech company devising an ultra-sensitive diagnostic tests for cancer, or a well established player working towards improving in vitro fertilisation success rates, they invariably have one story to tell: the best route to success is through focusing on niche sectors. Oh - and one other thing. Their best route to expanding their mailing list is to offer an iPod.

Day 2: Me, Cuban scientists, and transgenic apples

It is often said that there are six degree of separation between everyone on the planet. In the field of biotechnology, it seems the number of degrees is down to two or three.

Although conventions like BIO have a program that runs delegates ragged, the bulk of the activity is going on in networking. Thanks to all that schmoozing, the lifelines of companies seem to criss-cross and bring people together more than in any other industry.

On the second evening of the conference I headed towards a party hosted on a four-mast ship called Moshulu, anchored in the Delaware River. There I bumped into the CEO of a Canadian company who, a few years back, had formed a joint venture with a Cuban research centre and, now, is in the process of testing one of the Cuban therapeutics in the hope of bringing it to Western markets.

Later that night, in the Independence Pub, where the Belgian delegates hosted a party with traditional Belgian fries and beer, I came across the managing director of a company based in the Netherlands who is hoping to bring a generic version of the anaemia drug EPO (erythropoietin) to Europe. To do that, they buy the medical dossiers of patients treated by EPO, in the hope of cutting down on their own clinical trials. The best place to get such files is apparently in Cuba.

Okay, they might not know each other - yet. But they both are connected to Cuba, and with BIO acting to reduce the degrees of separation between such people they may soon meet.

Wandering home after the evening's festivities, I realise that the day scientists create genetically modified apples, the biotech industry will be only be one degree of separation away from Benjamin Franklin, a resident of Philadelphia. Few people actually know that Franklin is the originator of the famous saying "an apple a day, keeps the doctor away", taken from his book of conventional wisdom Poor Richard's Almanack. I wonder how he would feel about people chomping down on transgenic apples?

Day 1: All grown up?

As the delegates roll in for the BIO meeting, it occurs to me that this year's location - Philadelphia - is rather symbolic. The city is often referred to as the birthplace of the United States, being home to both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. So perhaps it is a suitable host for a kind of birth for BIO. No longer in the shadow of its big brother, the pharmaceutical sector, the biotech industry has finally come of age.

As a sign of its maturity, BIO has also become truly international. One third of the 17,000 registered as of Sunday are from abroad. The Session on India was so crammed with people from around the world, sporting business suits and the occasional sari, that they had to sit on the floor. Looking around the room during the session on China, it felt like a big happy family with representatives from countries in Asia, Europe, North and South America, all united in their curiosity over the emerging pharmaceutical giant that is Asia.

There's an aspect of self-promotion as well as sharing in all these presentations, as representative from various countries attempt to convince the audience to invest their drug development dollars in their territory. They promise captivated ears that it is now possible to cut costs in research, clinical trials and manufacturing by more than half. And progressing to trials in the Western market is less risky if a drug has already been approved in the East, they point out. Alongside such pitches come words of praise for the mountains, lakes and golf courses of places such as South Korea, promising leisure for the overworked biotech executive.

But things are not so simple, an Indian-born US biotech executive confided to me at a late night reception at the museum of fine art, as we dipped strawberries in a fountain of chocolate. Most companies worry about whether the regulatory authorities will accept any data or products obtained from activities in territories where standards are different, and whether their patents will be respected. Today, only a small part of the industry's activity is actually outsourced to countries like India and China.

Clearly, the attraction of cutting costs does not yet balance out all of the perceived risk.

Day 1: Protest city

Like everything touched by globalisation, biotechnology invites the criticism of anti-big-business protestors. When BIO threw a lavish reception at the National Constitution Center, rows of protestors stood along the path to the front door with placards sporting slogans accusing biotechnology of being a 'biohazard'.

There seem to be fewer protesters here than in Boston in 2000 or in San Francisco last year, where they hosted a whole afternoon of entertainment. In the city squares people dressed as tomatoes and corncobs as they danced, sang, and sported slogans against transgenic crops. Now the protest seems less confrontational; more organised. Some activists have even set up a counter-conference called Biodemocracy 2005 around town, to speak out against "genetically engineered agriculture, medicine for profit and bioweapons proliferation".

Surprisingly few words were exchanged between partygoers and protestors at the reception. The notion that these two camps are very far apart from each other seemed to get worse as the evening progressed. In the balmy summer night, BIO attendees sipped red wine on the terrace, surrounded by guest entertainers from the Cirque du Soleil. Down below another kind of circus was going on, as police forces on their mountain bikes kept hooded activists from joining in the party. So much for the notion of democratic dialogue.


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