BioWorld International Correspondent

SAN FRANCISCO - The UK government announced further steps to promote UK bioscience, promising a "hearts and minds" campaign to persuade institutional investors to look more kindly on biotechnology and beef up legislation to curtail the activities of animal rights activists.

The measures, in response to the Bioscience 2015 report published in November, were set out by Science Minister David Sainsbury, who is leading a 600-strong UK delegation at the BIO 2004 convention this week.

Bioscience 2015 called for improvements to the funding regime for biotechnology companies, including a relaxation of preemption rules that force UK public companies to get the consent of existing shareholders for issues of more than 5 percent of their capital.

It takes time to comply with the requirement, during which a funding window may close, and, as it is public, often depresses the share price.

Sainsbury told BioWorld International that the government is sympathetic to that demand. Although it is not in its charge to change the rule, it is "going to pursue this with institutional investors."

The aim of Bioscience 2015 to create a sustainable bioscience sector and to maintain the UK's position as second in the world after the U.S. appear to have been undermined in the past year, with Germany moving ahead of the UK in terms of the number of companies and the UK sector denuded by the sale of its leading companies, Amersham plc, PowderJect Pharmaceuticals plc and Celltech Group plc, to foreign owners.

But Sainsbury said, "The key thing is not ownership, it is where the high-value jobs are located." He claimed the key driver is where the skills are. "Multinational companies are driven by making profits; they will put the jobs where it is best for them to go."

In the case of Celltech, administrative jobs may be transferred to the headquarters of the new Belgian owner UCB Pharma, but high-tech jobs will come to the UK.

BioScience 2015 called for a new bill to deal with animal rights extremists. Sainsbury said the government thought most of what has been asked for "are important and valuable things," but added, "there may be quicker ways of getting there" than introducing new legislation.

Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the UK BioIndustry Association, told BioWorld International she believed the government's overall response to Bioscience 2015 shows things are going in the right direction in general. But she is frustrated by the lack of headway on animal legislation, despite a sustained campaign by the BIA.

"The animal issue has really made no progress whatsoever," she said. "We can see some movement, and that's positive, but in terms of delivery we have not gotten there.

"We need something comprehensive, not a sticking plaster," she added.

The government already has acted on several other recommendations in Bioscience 2015, most notably in providing £100 million (US$183.6 million) for the formation of a National Clinical Trials Agency, and in providing more support for bioprocessing. Sainsbury said the speed of response reflects the quality of the report and the government's commitment to the sector.