SAN DIEGO – There was a time, not so long ago, when biotech was such a clubby and chummy field that organizers of the industry’s annual conference welcomed protesters inside as amusing distractions.
Carl Feldbaum, the nine-year president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, fondly remembers inviting demonstrators dressed as fruits and vegetables onto the conference floor in Seattle in 1999.
“They were very nice young people,” Feldbaum said.
Biotechnology has since grown from a highbrow boutique for brainy molecular scientists to an industry that generated revenues of $22.3 billion last year.
“Nice” is not a word anyone would use anymore to describe biotechnology’s relationship with its critics, who are converging by the thousands on San Diego for this year’s conference, running Sunday through Wednesday.
The Washington, D.C.-based BIO trade group estimates that 1,280 biotech companies nationwide generated revenues of $22.3 billion last year. That’s much less than the $290 billion market capitalization of leading drug-maker Pfizer Inc. and the $500 billion market capitalization of the entire pharmaceutical industry, but rising fast nonetheless.
Publicly owned biotech companies had a combined market capitalization of $35 billion, while $3.2 billion in venture capital investment flowed into biotech start-ups — both all-time highs, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
The financial strength of the nation’s 1,280 biotech companies still pales in comparison to the $500 billion market capitalization of the entire pharmaceutical industry, but it’s bulking up fast nonetheless.
Thanks to the decoding of the human genome and the expectation that it will lead to revolutionary medical advances, biotech now has more money, people, and interest than ever before. A record 15,000 attendees are expected at the conference, touting progress toward cures for diseases, agricultural improvements and even help for deep-space exploration.
Though the venture capital stream into startups has slowed this year, biotech — and genomics in particular — remains an active investment area.
In the months since we were told by scientists that we possess an estimated 30,000 genes in each cells, dozens of companies have aggressively searched this genetic code for keys to therapies that can be patented and profited from.
“Genomics has been extremely hot for investment,” PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner Jim Ingraham said.
As the industry grows, so does the number and rancor of its critics — as many of 5,000 of which are expected to converge on the San Diego Conference Center.
Even before the conference began, two protesters were arrested around noon Saturday for vandalizing a police car. Both were taken to jail.
Most have focused their ire on genetically engineered “Frankenfoods,” increasing corporate control of the world’s food supply and xenotransplantation — the use of animal organs and tissue for treating human diseases.
“Genetic engineering poses the biggest risks in history to our health and environment,” Greenpeace activist Ama Marston said Thursday outside an Albertson’s grocery store in San Diego, where members of her group ran through the baked goods aisle slapping warning stickers on the food.
Abortion foes also will be out in force, protesting embryonic stem cell research.
They fear scientists will create, clone and destroy embryos simply in the name of research. Proponents, though, argue that no other human cells offer as much promise for regenerating diseased tissue and attacking a host of diseases from Parkinson’s to cancers.
The Bush administration on Wednesday said it would support a bill to ban the cloning of embryonic stem cells. Also pending is an administration decision on whether to block federal funds for the research.
“Even at one cell, I can’t say that’s not a human being,” said Indiana State University cellular biologist David Prentice, an outspoken foe of embryonic stem research.
But where protesters see biological nightmares, Feldbaum and other biotech industry leaders envision millions of lives saved and billions of dollars made.
“Lives are at stake,” Feldbaum said. “We will defend our conference.”