By Kevin Davies
Nov. 12, 2002 | Two minutes into George Poste's keynote lecture at the recent Atlas Venture conference* in Cannes, France, many attendees must have wished they were frolicking in the Mediterranean than fretting about megalomaniacal terrorism. Paradoxically, however, Poste's dire warnings signify an unprecedented opportunity for the biotechnology community, a theme reiterated throughout the meeting. Even though nobody was brave (or foolish) enough to predict when the markets might recover, a score of presentations from first-rate genomics and drug discovery companies offered cause for optimism.
The opening keynote was delivered by Steve Holtzman, CEO of Infinity Pharmaceuticals Inc. Infinity is one of the more heralded drug discovery startups in recent years, featuring a potent blend of chemical genomics and bioinformatics, and backed by what industry insiders fondly refer to as the mother of all advisory boards, including Eric Lander, Stuart Schreiber, and Richard Klausner.
Holtzman laid out his vision for building a successful biotech company, while noting that to date, the biotech revolution has only spawned about 25 truly successful biotech companies — about one per year. The blueprint centers on hitting a company valuation of $600 million before an initial public offering in about 2006 — anything less than $500 million he dismissed as "a no man's land." Research spending over the first few years would total about $300 million — half on the technology platform and half on product development, with the goal of having the first "molecule in man" within seven years. The successful companies of the future, he believes, will be those that dig wide and dig deep, and build extensive pipeline and partner portfolios.
Holtzman, a philosophy major, proclaimed, "This is a privileged moment in the history of man," equivalent to the Copernican and Darwinian revolution. The industry had a "moral responsibility, a sacred trust," to accelerate the biotech revolution.
The Best Defense
Ironically, one of the brightest opportunities for biotechnology is one of society's greatest threats — bioterrorism. George Poste, former president of R&D at what was then SmithKline Beecham, chairs the Department of Defense Task Force on the Protection of the United States Against Bioterrorism. Contrasting conventional terrorism with today's technologically facile threat, Poste offered the reassuring prospect that a passenger releasing an aerosol on a transatlantic flight could effectively result in the contamination of four to 11 American cities. As knowledge of gene regulation and signaling pathways improves, microbes could eventually be engineered to become "biological circuit disruptors" — and chemical weapons could be tailored for the same purpose.
Poste believes technological advances to counter this serious threat must come in the areas of diagnostics and emergency management. Immediate priorities include new diagnostic tests for the top 10 pathogens, stockpiling improved vaccines, the development of antitoxins, and environmental sensors to detect individual pathogens.
Education is another problem area. In some instances, there is too much, as illustrated by recent disclosure of the resynthesis of the polio virus genome. Take the latest gene therapy research on "stealth" viral vectors, designed to evade the inevitable host immune response. Wouldn't that be a bonanza for Baghdad?
But often there is too little. Poste recalled how a U.S. congressman had recently inquired how many drugs could be bought with a $1-billion investment, as if successful drug discovery was simply a question of additional funding.
The immediate priority facing the new breed of biotech companies is how to survive this turbulent economic climate, having seen the stock price of virtually every genomics company collapse 80 to 90 percent over the past two years, including Wall Street darlings such as Holtzman's former company, Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. One-third of biotech companies are currently valued at less than cash worth — some mere cents on the dollar.
|One of the brightest opportunities is one of society's greatest threats — bioterrorism. *The Tenth Annual Atlas Venture Life Sciences Conference, Cannes, France: Sept. 29-Oct. 1, 2002.
Most of the presenting companies hawked the sterling credentials of their founding scientific and management teams, in the belief that smart people will navigate stormy waters. Certainly, there was no shortage of innovation on display: From proteomics to pharmacogenomics, cell microarrays to new DNA sequencing platforms, the field is not wanting for innovative programs and enthusiastic pitches.
Speakers ranged from grad students who looked barely old enough to drive, to battle-hardened pharmaceutical executives who've seen it all. Many promised the earth, but none more so than Christoph Westphal, the acting CEO of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. Westphal concluded his talk by screening the famous clip from The Graduate, in which Walter Brooke offers Dustin Hoffman some career advice. Except in this clip, the word "plastics" was over-dubbed by "RNA interference."
Well, this was Cannes after all.
Eyes on the Prize
This issue of Bio·IT World is arguably more special than most, for a couple of reasons. Last month, my colleagues and I sat down for a frank and fascinating interview with Craig Venter, who discussed his tenure at Celera Genomics, the "race" for the genome, the business of biotechnology, his future ambitions (including a possible partnership with Microsoft), and much more. The first of two installments of this exclusive interview appears on page 40.
We could not resist asking Venter about the possible recognition of his genome work by the Swedish Nobel committee one day. Not surprisingly, as the sequence remains incomplete, the award was not given to the genome project pioneers this year. Ironically, however, the committee did recognize one of Venter's most strident critics, Sir John Sulston. The former director of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute shared this year's prize for medicine or physiology with Sydney Brenner, of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and MIT's Robert Horvitz.
The trio played pivotal roles in establishing the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as a key model of animal development, with particular significance in neuroscience and programmed cell death. Brenner, who won the Lasker Award in 2000, first proposed the nematode — a microscopic soil-dwelling creature that lives on bacteria — as a model organism in the early '60s, not long after he had helped decipher the genetic code.
This issue also marks the debut of our Strategic Insights series, a regular addition to the publication that affords an in-depth look at a diverse range of bio-IT issues. Our first series, entitled "Genes & Liens," features five invited contributions from experts in the field of gene patenting, pulled together by our new special project editor, Tony Strattner. We hope you find this a valuable addition to our editorial portfolio.
Kevin Davies, Ph.D.