The BIO 2003 annual convention, held this year in Washington, is shaping up - like previous years - to be bigger, grander and more international than the year previous. But perhaps the best measuring stick for what the biotechnology industry has become and its place in the world is the list of this year's speakers.

Actress Teri Garr, who has multiple sclerosis, will be there, advocating MS research. Washington Wizards basketball player Jerry Stackhouse will talk about diabetes, as part of his Triple Threat Foundation. Veteran White House correspondent Sam Donaldson will speak at a plenary breakfast session. Those are big names, nationally recognized names.

But Carl Feldbaum, the Biotechnology Industry Organization president, cautioned early Friday morning a bigger name might be in store for BIO attendees.

"I'm expecting the announcement that the president will attend," he told BioWorld Today. "I believe that will come out within the hour."

He was right. The news that President Bush will speak during today's plenary luncheon, taking the stage at 12:45 p.m., hit the wires not long afterward.

Bush's presence is not only a statement on how far the science has come, but also puts a final, presidential flourish on the event that marks BIO's 10-year anniversary as a biotechnology liaison to Washington. Although global events might suggest a slower year for the convention, early numbers suggest otherwise.

"Even given the background of the general economy, and given the concerns about SARS and security, this will be the biggest gathering the biotechnology industry has ever had, once again," Feldbaum said. "We are already over 13,000 preregistrants."

Last year the conference swelled to more than 15,500 attendees - its highest total ever - and although Feldbaum said it's "too early to predict," he anticipates a head count of 16,000 or 17,000. There will be constituents from 55 countries, and the number of non-U.S. registrants will nearly equal U.S. registrants (2002's conference in Toronto was the first time that statistic tilted in favor of non-U.S. registrants).

With all those people, "the exhibit hall is one thing to look out for" at the conference, Feldbaum said. "It's a visual depiction of a global industry." The hall has 345,000 square feet of space and 27 nations have set up pavilions. The space will, literally, be a biotechnology carnival.

BIO 2003 also will have a political tint, given the location. Eight sessions will be held about Capitol Hill, Feldbaum said, adding, "We are taking the mountain to Mohammed, if you will." Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, will speak at the conference, and Feldbaum noted that the convention "will take place in the middle of the Medicare debate on Capitol Hill. We'll see that played out in real time."

The FDA also will be a topic, he said.

"FDA issues are always at or near the forefront," Feldbaum said. "People have questions about how PDUFA is being implemented and what the FDA is going to do to streamline its reviews." But, he added, the industry already has seen the FDA "get cranked up again," since the appointment of new FDA head Mark McClellan, who also will speak today.

A year ago, the conference found biotechnology in a serious slump, with companies scrambling for money and cutting back. While that description could still be applied to companies today, this year's conference comes at a time when the industry is receiving renewed investor interest. Recent clinical triumphs, such as South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc.'s anti-angiogenesis product Avastin, as well as the approval of its asthma product Xolair, have helped lift stocks. The American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in late May and early June provided more positive data. The Nasdaq Biotechnology Index has spent most of 2003 climbing and there's no denying the "major positive buzz all around," Feldbaum said, that has settled over the industry recently. (See BioWorld Today, June 3, 2003, and May 20, 2003.)

"It's performance driven," Feldbaum said. "As progress is made, the markets react accordingly. It has been somewhat cancer driven, but there also is great interest in neurobiology." He added that there have been advances in Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, as well as in rarer diseases from some of the smaller biotech companies.

How will the 2003 convention stack up against years past? That's not necessarily important, Feldbaum said.

"I don't know if it's useful to compare them - [the convention] changes and grows each year," he said. "The conference is a mirror of the industry as it changes and evolves. We've had good conferences in good times and not-so-good times. We expected fewer people, for a variety of reasons, this year, but that is not happening."