BioWorld International Correspondent

DUBLIN, Ireland - Tommy Thompson, the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, is the latest confirmed speaker to be added to the lineup for next week's inaugural BioIreland conference.

Thompson is heading a business mission that will investigate ways of fostering biotechnology cooperation between Ireland and the U.S. His visit follows on from contacts made at the U.S.-Ireland business summit in Washington in September.

Also on the roster for the Dublin meeting are Biotechnology Industry Organization President CEO Carl Feldbaum; EuropaBio Secretary General Hugo Schepens; Nobel laureate Hartmut Michel of the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt, Germany; and Donal Geaney, former chairman and CEO of Dublin-based Elan Corp. plc.

The meeting marks a coming of age of sorts for the Irish BioIndustry Association (IBIA), the representative body for Ireland's fledgling biotechnology industry, which was formed five years ago. Much of its activity has been internally focused during that time.

Getting biotechnology onto the Irish government agenda has been one of its main priorities. "When we formed the association in Ireland, there was no particular government commitment to biotechnology at all," said IBIA director Matt Moran.

Since then, the government has designated biotechnology, along with information technology, as a priority area for research. It established a new agency, Science Foundation Ireland, which is allocating €710 million over six years to these areas. The Higher Education Authority, which administers the university sector, has also backed life sciences research strongly in its program for research in third-level institutions, which has allocated €605 million in funding since 1999.

Next week's event, Moran said, is "an opportunity to place Ireland firmly in the shop window for biotechnology." The IBIA, which represents the sector in Northern Ireland as well as in the Republic of Ireland, has a dual strategy for developing the sector in Ireland, based around attracting foreign direct investment projects and building an indigenous base of companies.

So far, Ireland's research base, with some exceptions, has not been highly competitive internationally, and the level of drug discovery and development activity within the country is minimal at present, although it has long been a major manufacturing hub for traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing. Moran said the country is now well positioned to pursue overseas investment based on a "development and manufacturing" model of biopharmaceutical production. Because of the complexity of biopharmaceuticals manufacturing, he said, process development functions will need to be located close to manufacturing facilities.

The project that best fits this profile is a 1.2-million-square-foot facility that Wyeth, of Madison, N.J., is building in the outskirts of Dublin. The plant, which represents an investment of more than US$1 billion, is scheduled to commence production in 2005 of the rheumatoid arthritis blockbuster Enbrel and other products for treatment of pneumonia, hemophilia A and spinal injuries.