West Coast Editor

NEW YORK - Talk by experts of a "silent killer" and "the enemy within" at a meeting in this terror-scarred city dealt not with anti-American threats but with medical troubles that attack across all boundaries - hepatitis C virus and inflammatory disease respectively, which a pair of focus sessions (among others) addressed at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference.

The event, arranged by the Biotechnology Industry Organization and uniquely designed with panels aimed at specific indications, is in its seventh year and chalked up a record 1,900 registrants.

"Increasing the efficacy rate within the present standard of care [for HCV] is clearly an unmet medical need," said Joshua Boger, chairman and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., fresh from a potential $73 million deal to develop a cancer compound with Avalon Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Germantown, Md. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 16, 2005.)

HCV was the subject of an agreement last year worth up to $33 million between Vertex and Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Pharma Corp. to develop and commercialize the Phase I hepatitis C drug VX-950 in Japan and the Far East. Vertex is testing in a large Phase IIb trial another drug, the oral compound merimepodib, Boger said. Merimepodib is for patients not responsive to standard-of-care treatment. Results are due later this year.

Another panel, moderated by Winson Tang, director of research for Pacific BioCapital Group, focused on the triple inflammatory problem of psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

"There's been a lot of publicity recently about target-specific therapy in cancer," he said. "The same story also holds true in the field of rheumatology, where there has been a paradigm shift in the last 20 years." He pointed to COX-2 inhibitors, cytokine inhibitors, tumor necrosis factor blockers and interleukin-1 receptor antagonists.

"Unfortunately, in the field of lupus, the same cannot be said," Tang noted. "There has not been a new drug developed in lupus in over 30 years," and only three drugs are approved for the indication.

In rheumatoid arthritis, though, he predicted "a lot more excitement ahead" because of the discovery of various pathways. Amgen Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif., is testing one compound to block interleukin-15, and Vertex has an IL-1 beta converting enzyme inhibitor.

"Chemokine is also a target out there now," Tang said, noting programs by Tularik Inc., of San Francisco (acquired by Amgen last March) and Cheshire, Conn.-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc.

The sessions provided savvy overviews of disease areas where the competition typically is fierce. But the highlight of the day was the keynote luncheon speech by BIO president and former U.S. Rep James Greenwood, named in July to take over the position vacated by Carl Feldbaum. It was Greenwood's first address at a BIO meeting. (See BioWorld Today, July 23, 2004.)

One goal, he said, is to educate members of Congress about biotechnology.

"As someone who has been on the receiving end of lobbying for a very long time, I can tell you what we're not going to do is walk up with another portfolio of papers" and leave one on the desk of each member, he said.

Instead, his plan for "high-tech lobbying" is to make a video of seven and a half to 10 minutes long, explaining the industry.

"The material we have to work with is so compelling, I've said to these filmmakers, You only get paid if, when you show this to a member of Congress, a tear comes down his or her eye,'" Greenwood said. Politicians need an emotional and intellectual comprehension of what the industry does, he said.

"Ultimately, most members of Congress are pretty bright and given an opportunity to hear our story, I think we will win them over," he said. BIO is conducting a survey of Congress's 535 members to find out what each member knows about biotechnology, and how he or she regards the industry.

"I want BIO to be on the intellectual front edge of every policy issue that affects our companies," Greenwood said, especially with issues on the table, such as reimbursement, drug importation, and restrictive rules regarding Small Business Innovation Research grants.

He also said he was looking forward to getting inside the FDA "black box" and navigating there on behalf of members - despite the fact that recent concerns over heart complications related to COX-2 selective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs might change the culture somewhat at the agency. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 22, 2005.)

"I'm fairly optimistic that things will go well," he said.