Biotech World to Converge in S.D.
By Penni Crabtree, Staff Writer
About 15,000 biotech executives are expected to attend Bio2001, a four-day conference that will showcase developments ranging from the breakthrough mapping of the human genome to the latest in lifesaving therapies.
Many of the nation's estimated 1,280 biotech companies 216 of them based in San Diego, home to the third-largest cluster of U.S. biotech firms will strive to present their best corporate face during the eighth annual event. It begins June 24 at the San Diego Convention Center.
Their message? A Golden Age of biotechnology has arrived, fueled by new research tools and a wealth of information gleaned from the recent mapping of our roughly 35,000 human genes, the chemical building blocks of life.
"There is a real revolution in the understanding of life that may change how we look at ourselves, and biotech is the corporate face of that," said Hank Greely, co-director of Stanford University's program in genomics, ethics and society.
But it's a face that frightens some opponents.
The conference is expected to draw up to 5,000 demonstrators, including environmentalists and anti-globalization activists who hope to grab the spotlight with rallies, acts of civil disobedience and a multi-day counterevent called BioDevastation.
Their vision of biotech is decidedly dark: a science-run-amok world of "Frankenfood," human cloning and corporations that seek to own and manipulate the world's genetic resources.
"The whole natural world is at their disposal," said Doreen Stabinsky, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace. "Genes are the oil of the Information Age, another resource for corporations to make money off of."
Industry leaders defend their science as both sound and sufficiently regulated by government. The goal, they say, is to find solutions to the world's food and medical needs while turning a profit for shareholders.
"Science has not run amok, but public education about the science has certainly not kept pace. That's the warp we are in now," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. The BIO, a national trade organization representing more than 900 of the nation's biotech companies, sponsors the industry conference.
Such disparate stances are likely to spark heated debate, if not constructive dialogue, when the two sides are in San Diego later this month. A bewildered public may be the better for the verbal sparring, Greely said.
"For major social changes, some level of debate is a good thing," he said, "and biotechnology is likely to lead to major social changes."
As protesters take their concerns to the streets, Bio2001 conference participants will tackle some of the same issues in sessions and workshops inside the convention center though from an industry perspective.
Among the subjects to be discussed:
Efforts to develop new drugs and vaccines to treat the worldwide AIDS epidemic. The drug industry took a public-relations beating this year over the cost of such treatments and the inability of many developing countries to afford them.
The recent mapping of the human genome, and the staggering amount of data that biotech researchers are exploring. New insights into genes raise some thorny issues, including ownership of gene patents and how to safeguard the genetic privacy rights of individuals.
Efforts to genetically engineer crops and ways to ensure that bioengineered corn, soybeans and other gene-altered products that haven't been approved for human consumption stay out of the food supply.
Issues surrounding patient rights and the ethical conduct of experimental drug studies. Since the 1999 death of Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old who suffered a fatal reaction to an experimental gene therapy, a number of sanctions and guidelines have been imposed by regulators.
These and other issues affecting biotech companies come at a time when the industry is moving rapidly from gawky adolescence to adulthood. Born just a few decades ago, biotech is coming into its own with a slew of new products, from monoclonal antibodies that specifically target cancer cells to gene-altered seeds that resist pests and weeds.
Last year, U.S. biotechnology companies generated $22.3 billion in revenue and won government approval for 32 new drugs or existing drugs with new uses, according to the BIO.
Biotech has also become a force though a high-risk one on Wall Street. Last year the industry raised about $35 billion in investor dollars, despite the fact that a vast majority of companies do not make a profit and have not won federal approval for their products.
Yet for all of the gee-whiz scientific glamour, there continue to be growing pains.
In the industry's early years, biotechnology was mostly about science and business how to take an idea out of a research laboratory and put enough capital behind it to bring a product to market.
Now it's also about politics and ethics. New research technologies, coupled with powerful computing tools, have advanced scientific knowledge by leaps. But with the knowledge come questions about how the science gets used and who profits.
Those questions are increasingly the stuff of banner headlines and congressional debate. As in January, when an international team of doctors announced its intention to clone a human. Or with last year's contamination of taco shells and other foods with a bioengineered corn not approved for human consumption.
Such controversy is fodder for a relatively small but vocal international protest movement that is targeting gatherings like Bio2001. Last year, when the industry held its annual gathering in Boston, about 2,500 protesters took part in a largely peaceful anti-biotech demonstration.
In 1999, another loose-knit coalition of protesters with similar anti-globalization aims disrupted the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and rioting resulted in numerous arrests.
San Diego police are taking security precautions, planning for a worst-case WTO scenario but hoping the protests will prove uneventful. The price tag for San Diego taxpayers is expected to be a minimum of $2 million for additional police training, overtime and special equipment, said John Welter, assistant police chief.
Welter said police are communicating with protest organizers and biotech industry leaders, and that both sides are working to ensure a peaceful gathering.
"The unfortunate part is we aren't sure the people who might be violent will be the ones talking to us," he said. "It would be nice to have a crystal ball, but since we don't, we will prepare for the worst-case scenario."
Copyright 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
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