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By John Russell

February 10, 2003 | Even as layoffs ripple through the biotech world, the promise of in silico biology and the industry’s deepening dependence on IT and high-throughput equipment are fueling technology spending plans.

Pharma and biotech, it seems, have no choice but to spend precious resources on technology to remain competitive. At least that’s the strong suggestion of a recent Bio-IT Worldsurvey of more than 500 life science professionals across all industry segments. More than half of respondents reported technology budget increases for 2003, with an average increase of 32 percent. Only seven percent of respondents reported budgets cuts.

Information technology (81 percent of respondents) and having a skilled workforce (73 percent) were cited as the top two factors driving advances in life sciences this year. Surprisingly, streamlined compliance and terrorism ranked last on the list of importance factors. Spending growth, respondents say, will be greatest for life science equipment (24 percent) and software applications (23 percent), followed by IT applications (18 percent) and hardware (17 percent).

It’s natural to wonder if corporate wallets will open as readily and widely as respondents’ budget plans indicate, but expectations remain high for in silico biology’s payoff. Respondents predicted their organizations’ in silico work would nearly double during the next decade, jumping from 27 percent today to 47 percent.

Clearly, the wet lab isn’t going away, but long-awaited gains from in silico research are slowly materializing and spurring investment. A good example is Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.’s use of in silico modeling to weed out less promising compounds.

Starting with a library of 28,000 compounds, Vertex says it first culled 3,100 candidates and shrunk that number to 417 with a second simulation. Researchers visually examined the remaining prospects on computer screens, selected 73 as promising, and eventually synthesized 40 of the original 28,000 for further investigation.

Speaking at a recent Marcus Evans Executive IT Life Science Forum in New York, senior director of IT, Paul DuPuis, said Vertex has used in silico techniques to cut the cost of moving a compound from conception to a Phase II trial to $50 million, versus the industry average of $250 million. Dupuis also said the time requirements have been cut from an average of three to four years to one to three years.

Achieving those kinds of impressive productivity improvements requires significant investment. Vertex has assembled a powerful Linux cluster, capable of 68 gigaflops (a gigaflop is one billion floating-point operations per second), to do the job. But technology is no panacea. Vertex, like many other cutting-edge drug discovery companies, struggles to stay on track. The company said last October it would lose between $100 million and $110 million in 2002, or $20 million to $30 million more than originally forecast.

Survey takers seem to accept the need to buy critical technology, even when financial storm clouds threaten, and they are jumping on the Linux bandwagon as a way to contain high-performance computing (HPC) costs: Linux topped respondents’ list of platform migration plans for this year (48 percent).  

The life sciences technology buy tends to be a group effort, according to survey responses -- hardly surprising, given the high cost and strategic nature of many IT and equipment purchases. Buying team members often include scientific management, IT management, executive management, and principal investigators. Predictably, individual influence varies according to the nature of the specific buy.

PCs and workstations led the shopping list (52 percent of respondents plan to buy), followed by storage (47 percent), PDAs (personal digital assistants) and mobile devices (46 percent), and data-mining tools (44 percent).

Respondents were also asked to name (unaided) which brands they would consider when buying specific product types. The answers are likely to cause pain and pleasure in unequal measure among technology vendors.

Few suppliers dominated a category, except Oracle Corp., which did so dramatically in the database world: 77 percent of respondents said they would consider Oracle, followed by Microsoft Corp. (30 percent) and IBM Corp. (11 percent), when making planned database purchases. The “other” category garnered 19 percent.

By and large, “other” was the big winner, as respondents chose not to write in the name of a supplier and selected the other option -- for example, informatics tools (84 percent “other”) and LIMS (laboratory information management systems) (68 percent “other”). Perhaps J. Craig Venter, former CEO of Celera Genomics, was correct in suggesting that the life sciences market is still waiting for a “Microsoft” to arrive and dominate (see “Venter Unvarnished [Part II],” Bio-IT World, December 2002, page 26).

For reprints and/or copyright permission, please contact Angela Parsons, 781.972.5467.