The crowd picketing the BIO 2004 conference made it very clear that the public has many concerns about biotechnology. The demonstration shut down traffic in the downtown area for several hours Tuesday. By Thursday, the tally of arrests totaled about 150 people, and a dozen people were still in custody.
One protestor near the hall yelled that it made little sense for developed nations to promote obesity and then profit from selling obesity treatment. This "unhealthy lifestyle," demonstrators said, is supported by corporate strategies and government policies, which then must be addressed through expensive medications.
Another popular target of the protest was agricultural biotechnology for its perceived ecological consequences and economic ramifications within developing nations.
To little surprise, the biotech executives disregarded the concerns. They uniformly saw education as the best way to address the complaints of the protestors jeering at attendees.
"The public should see scientists as part of society, rather than being outside of it," offered James Mullen, CEO of Biogen Idec Inc. following Tuesdays demonstration.
The conference covered many facets of biotechnology, from the drug creation and agricultural products on the minds of protesters to the use of IT in medicine.
One hot topic was the optimization of genomic searching for drugs and the creation of a biological database, or "biobank."
While pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have spent many billions to obtain information on the genetic variations associated with the emergence of particular diseases, the going is still slow. Only 10 percent of the drug molecules that start out in the research pipeline actually make it to market, according to data presented at the conference.
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, called for the establishment of a biobank in the United States. The goal would be a publicly accessible database containing the biological material of at least half a million people, he said. It would allow scientists to track diseased and nondiseased populations, as well as to access data on an individual preceding the onset of disease.
"If the public understood the benefits and potential benefits of biotechnology, they would fear it less," said Leroy Hood, president of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.
One BIO project that seeks to improve that standing with the public will be the BIO Ventures for Global Health (BVGH), announced Monday. The new nonprofit organization will target neglected diseases and said it has received a $1 million startup grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Carl Feldbaum, the president of BIO since its inception with the merging of two smaller trade groups in 1993, announced the formation of BVGH in his keynote address.
He acknowledged that the bounties and benefits of biotechnology have been limited largely to developed countries. Remedying this inequity, particularly in the face of the epidemics of AIDS, malaria and yellow fever, has become a glaring priority, he said.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson was upbeat on the future of biotech. He discussed the recent mandatory moves toward bar codes on drugs and moves toward the use of RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags in medical applications.
The several-year slowdown of technology-sector growth served as the backdrop to this enthusiasm for biotech. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom stumped for the return of major biotech companies to the city. He promised tax breaks along with other perks.
But Newsom was hardly alone, as economic development groups from dozens of states and countries around the world were out in force and dominated the showroom floor. Although biotech has a limited economic impact now, clearly many are banking on its future as a growth industry.