BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - "Please make yourselves heard, be accessible, be positive and be proud of what you do." This was the plea from Paul Drayson, the new chairman of the UK BioIndustry Association (BIA), as he issued what he said was a "wake-up call" for biotechnology to defend itself against animal rights, antigenetic modification and religious protest groups.

"We must not be silent and let the activists claim the debate," he told more than 400 members of the industry at the BIA's annual dinner in London last week. The general public has little appreciation of the benefits of biotechnology, but the activities of pressure groups means they know a lot about the risks, he said.

Drayson was speaking just two days after Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a contract animal research company, was rescued from bankruptcy by new U.S. backers. This followed a year-long campaign by animal rights activists, picketing not only the company itself, but also targeting its financial backers and customers.

"The courage shown by Brian Cass [managing director] and the team at HLS in the face of horrific intimidation is an inspiration to all of us," he said. "HLS came close to closure, and should serve as a stark warning to all of us."

Government regulations require such research to be carried out, he said, and without animal testing there would be no new drugs. "Communicating these facts is key."

Over the past year the BIA has distanced itself from agricultural and environmental applications of biotechnology, particularly genetic modification of food crops. This followed a strategic review that aimed to sharpen the focus on the concerns of member companies, most of which are in health care.

There is a lack of public understanding of the health benefits of biotechnology, and a lack of public trust of the industry, Drayson said. "Biotechnology is science's new frontier. It will be as important in this century as computing was in the last," said Drayson, who also is also CEO of PowderJect Pharmaceuticals plc.

"Fifty percent of the world's disease still have no cure. Yet, over the next 20 years, biotechnology will offer us ways of heading off mass killers in our society such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Thanks to biotechnology, we are now developing vaccines against AIDS and malaria."

To highlight the relationship between biotechnology and health, the BIA invited representatives of patient interest groups to its dinner.

In addition to the health benefits, biotechnology is an increasingly important part of the UK economy, employing 40,000 people and accounting for half the market capitalization of biotechnology in Europe.

"We are well placed to keep the lead, and expect to stay No. 1 in Europe," Drayson said. "But we can't be complacent." There is now more venture capital going into biotechnology in Germany than the UK.

The BIA is to merge with its counterpart in Scotland, the Scottish Bionetwork Association. The merged association will increase its public affairs efforts.