BOSTON -- With 22 drugs approved last year and hundreds more in development, biotechnology seems poised as never before to cash in on its much-touted potential. But the scene here illustrates why the industry is beginning to see its future as hinging as much on PR as on DNA.
Outside the annual
Biotechnology Industry Organization
convention here, some 2,500 people were rallying against genetically modified food by dressing like vegetables and chanting slogans such as "Keep your hands out of my genes."
For an industry run by academics and technocrats who are more accustomed to proving arcane theories than formulating catchy slogans, the prospect of managing public opinion in the face of mass challenges has proved daunting. But with protesters virtually stalling the development of genetically modified food in Europe and threatening to do the same in the U.S., industry leaders concede that extolling the benefits of biotechnology might not be a bad idea.
'The Protest Industry'
"We were quite unprepared for attacks by the protest industry," acknowledged Roger Beachy, president of the
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
in St. Louis, a leading agrobiotechnology research center. "We were denounced by the very groups that were expected to applaud changes" in agriculture brought about by biotechnology.
Beachy, speaking at the opening session of BIO 2000 at the
Hynes Convention Center
here, pointed out that new strains of genetically modified cotton have allowed farmers to slash agrochemical use by a million gallons since 1996. But that hasn't stopped environmental advocates such as
from objecting on grounds that the foods could contain unforeseen dangers and either should be pulled off the market or more tightly regulated, he noted.
Industry leaders concede that more stringent regulation is likely as politicians seek to allay public concern about genetic research. But scientists must force themselves to address the benefits of such research or else face challenges from what they called "professional protesters" adept at getting their views across through the media, they say.
"No one minds debating the facts, but what we usually end up is debating emotion," said Peter Keen, director of
, a $400 million British venture capital fund that invests largely in biotech start-ups.
Starting to Deliver
Despite the periodic protests and unusually volatile share prices of recent months, the mood of the industry is heady. According to BIO, there were 22 biotechnology-derived drugs or medical products approved by the
Food and Drug Administration
last year, including
for rheumatoid arthritis from
Johnson & Johnson's
. Over the last dozen or so years, the FDA has approved some 90 drugs and vaccines derived from biotechnology, BIO said.
Even following the well-chronicled
setbacks of recent weeks, biotech stocks still are comfortably ahead for the year, and many issues are up by hundreds, if not thousands, of percent on their 52-week lows.
With the fortunes of biotech investors and the companies' funding opportunities hanging in the balance, the industry is beginning to recognize that it can't simply wait for the truth to win out.
"We are at a junction when biotechnology is starting to deliver," said Henri Termeer, chief executive of
and a BIO board member.
That said, there is still a long way to go, with researchers only beginning to understand the underlying processes that lead to such widespread diseases as Alzheimer's, cancer and multiple sclerosis.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), who was described as "a friend of biotechnology," said more regulation is inevitable from Congress this year. "We're going to be facing some of the 'know-nothing' forces again," he said.
Kennedy said the prospect of cost savings from new biotechnology drugs -- not just the benefits to humanity -- should be stressed in public debate. "If we had a breakthrough in Alzheimer's disease, we could empty half the nursing homes in Massachusetts," the senator said.
Meanwhile, Christopher Reeve, the quadriplegic actor, urged scientists at the meeting to work together to find new cures, rather than separately and in competition. He said his foundation had coordinated several multicenter projects in stem cell research that may lead to nerve cell regeneration treatments for spinal injury victims and others.
In a speech that drew a standing ovation, Reeve urged the nation's newly minted millionaires and billionaires to adopt medical research as a new cause. Although the audience contained a fair number of millionaire executives in an industry increasingly adept at minting them, some participants expressed shock when BIO donated only $5,000 to the actor's foundation. That came hours after some 9,500 industry participants dined on a lunch of filet mignon and other delicacies.
"I don't know whose idea that was," a sheepish BIO President Carl Feldbaum said of the size of the donation in an interview after the speech. "It's going to be brought up at the board meeting tomorrow."