THE END OF THE BEGINNING: Biotech Enters A New Phase

This past May, I joined some 14,000 of my closest friends at the international biotechnology conference, BIO 2009, in Atlanta, Georgia. The gossip started immediately: What happened to the other 6,000 of us that came last year? Is biotech in trouble?

Well, no one’s surprised that anything is in trouble these days — can you spell “economic meltdown?”

Still, the business of biotech is a different beast.

Normally, science takes time — a painstakingly long, meandering drunkard’s walk occasionally revealing an amazing discovery — while it continues along its way. The discovery must then be followed by an intense, directed effort to convert that science into useful, reproducible technology, and even beyond that to proven effectiveness, safety, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution, and then, only at the very end of the line, to humans.

Somehow, with modern biotechnology, the total timeframe became shortened. The technology phase could overlap with the scientific discovery phase, and in a comparative instant, deliver across global markets. While $1 billion+ and a decade or so of effort to produce a blockbuster may sound ominous to the average person, it’s actually affordable in today’s money. (Or, at least, in yesterday’s money.)

But when the money goes away, what happens to the momentum we’ve come to expect from biotech? What about all the almost-there technologies we hope will cure cancer, fuel our cars, feed the hungry?

The End of the Beginning - Photo by Dino Olivieri

Looking beyond what the business press is reporting — that a huge global pharmaceutical company bought up and absorbed the largest biotech company; a listing of the current trickle of novel scientific approaches that just got funded; and the latest exciting technology breakthrough actually finding its way to market — looking beyond all that… there has been a distinct sea change in the biotech industry, and I knew it, as I made the rounds at Bio 2009.

I wouldn’t have known it if I hadn’t been one of the gang. Even so, you might mistake it for some malaise that seems to be settling in on all of us lately, cushioned between the rising voice of Paul Krugman and the complete irrelevance of Bernie Madoff’s 150-year sentence. No, this was something entirely different.

In the midst of general economic collapse, like a teenager who knows nothing of the family budget, the biotech industry is maturing anyway.

Traditionally at this conference, the BioTech Nation production team hits the ground running, and we’re everywhere. From the press room to the exhibit area to the Super Sessions to the panels. And throughout it all, we record biotech interviews seemingly every hour of the day. We always ask: “What’s different this year?” We’d already covered the fact that attendance was down — everyone knew it, but let’s get real. I defy anyone to know whether you’re at a conference with 14,000 people or 20,000 people. How would you know? You don’t talk to fewer people. And in point of fact, the major players were all there, and the minor players were there as well. There was also a new cast of characters, interesting in and of themselves.

So, what was different?

Biotechnology FactorAfter nearly a week of 15-hour days, listening until my ears bled and talking until I was hoarse, it actually came over me in an instant: Progress is actually being made. Biotechnology was actually becoming a reality. Lo and behold, it has finally started to deliver on the promise it first spoke out loud some 20 years ago.

Whether it’s drugs or drug delivery; bioenergy or the needs of society; public policy or bioethics; there was suddenly no longer a need to argue that biotech had a good chance of working and we should continue to invest in it, even if it wasn’t making a dime. Biotech had begun to work, and in so many ways — from therapies to industrial processes, from diagnostics to drug delivery, from customizable bioenergy plants to emergent government policies.

Being a journalist, I am rewarded with a special portal — people want to tell me things. No longer were they intensely staring in my face, trying to convince me that their approach had merit — that they just needed the time and money to prove it. This year, the conversation changed. Many of them spoke as if they knew their technology was going to work. It was just a matter dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. If not this particular compound, then the next. If not this combination of genes, then the next. If not this formulation, then the next. Yes, they may still run short of money and time, but at least they now knew they weren’t crazy or foolish. The scientist who devotes the best years of his life to an idea that never pans out has a much different energetic signature than the scientist who can feel his goal within reach. And the biggest telltale sign of all? They volunteer what scientific puzzle they’re thinking about delving into next — not the abandonment of the old, but rather a looking forward toward the next mountain to be climbed.

Biofuel FactoryBusiness analysts gauge the viability of all business economically — specifically, whether or not, quarter after quarter, they turn a profit. Science and technology have no such timetable. Even in the best of times, they may need several decades to co-evolve. When a brilliant scientific proposition has presented itself, the technology can give you fits. But one after another, the promises of biotechnology comes of age. Surely, some will falter because there is little or no money, and that will be an abomination. Could the compound left by the roadside be the one that will cure Parkinson’s? Offer months of life to the terminally ill? Heal addiction? But in the midst of general economic collapse, like a teenager who knows nothing of the family budget, the biotech industry is maturing anyway. New products, new treatments, new economics, new options.

And for BioTech Nation? We’ve always focused on the people, not the financial statements. The science, not the products. The stories of those who dare, both in triumph and in failure. Without periods of struggle, would there still be stories left to tell?

But of course. The most intriguing questions always remain the same: What is life? What are our choices? And what happens when the choice is made? Besides, science always lives on the bleeding edge. There will never be a time where we understand it all, when all the questions are answered, when the scientist’s brain has nothing to puzzle over. There is always room for a paradigm shift.

It may seem like the end of the beginning, but believe me… now it really gets interesting.

Moira A. Gunn, Ph.D. hosts “BioTech Nation” on NPR Talk and NPR Live. She’s the author of Welcome to BioTech Nation… My Unexpected Odyssey into the Land of Small Molecules, Lean Genes, and Big Ideas, cited by the Library Journal as one of the “Best Science Books of 2007.” She will be awarded an honorary doctorate in science in May, 2009 by Purdue University. Copyright 2009 Moira A. Gunn

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