BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS - The European Biotech Crossroads, which took place in Nantes, France, on Sept. 25 and 26, was the seventh edition of the annual meeting of the French and European biotechnology industry, and this year ethical issues raised by the science of biotechnology dominated proceedings.

The tone was set by Michel Lazdunski, director of the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology at Sophia Antipolis. Reviewing the biotechnology industry's discoveries decade by decade and questioning the scientific use of some of them, he outlined the various social issues they raised. Concluding with the sequencing of the human genome, he wondered whether the large number of new targets would translate into a large number of new drugs.

"Many new drugs will continue to be discovered by analogy and by further exploring natural substances rather than through innovative science," he said, adding, "only 40 proteins are targeted by the 100 top-selling drugs at present."

While gene therapy was "something extraordinary," researchers had to proceed with caution and modesty, he said.

"The impression is given that the faulty gene is simply replaced by the good gene, but the faulty one remains in place, so there is the possibility of interference and adverse side effects," Lazdunski said. Similarly, xenotransplantation presented the "risk of a manmade pandemic through the spread of animal viruses," as had happened with the severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Lazdunski also questioned whether stem cells opened up an "El Dorado of regenerative medicine," but conceded that "embryonic stem cells do not pose any particular social problem." The real ethical debate should be "guided by the medical end goal" rather than any considerations of the sanctity of the human race, he concluded.

Other researchers also called for caution and for time to be taken in evaluating potential risks before proceeding with trials of new cell and gene therapies or with full-field trials of GM crops. But Joseph Wagner, director of cell biology at Neuronyx Inc., of Malvern, Pa., was unambiguous.

"There is a large unmet medical need in numerous pathologies that requires the development of regenerative medicine, and especially cell therapy," he said.

Similarly, the secretary general of the European Organization for Rare Diseases, Christel Nourissier, argued for new therapies for untreated diseases to be made available to patients as quickly as possible, while Senator Jean Bizet, a specialist in biotechnology issues in the French senate, said biotechnology could contribute to solving problems such as the overuse of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture and the contamination of the food chain.

The event, which included an exhibition hall and a business partnering convention as well as nearly 40 conference sessions, was attended by some 4,000 people, an increase from the 3,000 or so who attended last year's event in Lille. The 2004 meeting will take place in Marseille.