National Editor

SAN FRANCISCO - A more global flavor than ever before marks the BIO 2004 Annual International Convention, said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which sponsors the event.

"Since 2001, we've experienced an enormous increase in the proportion of people from other countries," he said. This year, one-third of the record 13,600 pre-registered attendees are traveling from outside the U.S.

"Even going back one year, a quarter of the crowd was coming from abroad," Feldbaum said. First-timers this year at BIO are attendees from Algeria, Armenia, the Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Peru, Romania, Slovenia, Uganda, Ukraine and Yemen, with a total of 56 non-U.S. countries taking part.

The total number of attendees is expected to swell to about 18,000. "Because it's the Bay Area, we expect more than a few walk-ins," Feldbaum said.

The last time the BIO meeting was held in San Francisco was 1995, when about 2,700 people attended. That year, 180 exhibitors set up booths in the San Francisco Hilton and Towers. The current meeting lists 1,375 exhibitors, the largest number ever, in Moscone Convention Center.

Feldbaum said many will be coming to BIO 2004 directly from the meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which started in New Orleans last Thursday and continues through Tuesday.

"New developments in cancer will be topic No. 1, if I were to list them," he said. Personalized medicine is another subject of more sessions this time around, he added.

Protestors are expected, of course - it's San Francisco.

"They have the right to free speech, and we have the right to assemble," Feldbaum said, even if sometimes "you're hard pressed to find the link to biotechnology" in the protestors' concerns, which might range from homelessness to the war in Iraq.

With the terrorist threat looming, authorities are taking appropriate measures.

"I don't know that I would call it extra security," Feldbaum said. "There is substantially well-thought-out security, with the aim of keeping everyone safe and comfortable, so they can come and go to the meetings."

What's being done?

"Everything," Feldbaum said. "We've been working for a year with state, local and federal authorities."

This will be the last annual meeting as president for Feldbaum, who said earlier this year he will retire and move to Idaho, calling the timing "just right" since BIO is hardier than ever. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 3, 2004.)

That phrase carries even more weight for Feldbaum now. His wife underwent surgery for a brain tumor several weeks ago. The tumor was benign, curable through resection, and she is recovering nicely. Follow-up will consist only of periodic magnetic resonance imaging tests.

"She's fine, or I wouldn't be here," said Feldbaum, himself a survivor of prostate cancer, caught early by a sophisticated prostate specific antigen test.

After 31 years in Washington, D.C., "I'd sure like to spend the fall in Idaho, something I've never done," Feldbaum told BioWorld Today, but he has agreed to stay on until a successor is found.

The process is moving along well, he said.

"What does not surprise me and I don't think it's surprising to the board, is the rather remarkable array of candidates - from elected officials to appointed officials to people within the biotech industry to heads of other trade associations," Feldbaum said.

The BIO meeting continues through Wednesday.