By Karen Pihl-Carey

BOSTON - Being a genomics company in what some call a post-genomics era raises a pertinent question on the minds of many CEOs and other company officials: Where do they go from here?

The answer: They acquire products, team with one other's technology, outsource when necessary and change their focus from solely discovering genes to bringing gene products direct to the patient's bedside.

In short, they become the new pharmaceutical company.

"This industry should focus on increasing productivity across the board," said William Haseltine, chairman and CEO of Rockville, Md.-based Human Genome Sciences Inc., "If we are successful, some of us have the opportunity to be the new Mercks, to be the new Pfizers."

Haseltine joined colleagues Randall Scott, president and chief scientific officer of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Incyte Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Mark Levin, CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc., in a panel discussion during the first full-day Monday of the BIO 2000 conference. A packed auditorium for the session was unable to accommodate more than 300 additional people who watched it via a televised wall display in the hallway outside.

As of midday, more than 8,000 people had registered for the Biotechnology Industry Organization's most-attended conference ever. The session titled "What Does It Mean to be a Genomics Company in a 'Post-Genomics' Era" was one of dozens offered throughout the day, which ended with BIO President Carl Feldbaum and actor Christopher Reeve speaking.

To understand where they're heading, Haseltine, Scott and Levin recapped where they have been. Scott, for instance, said from 1979 to 1987, he studied a particular gene, discovering how to purify its protein and eventually clone it. The other day, he scanned his company's database finding the gene within 20 minutes.

"So, in fact, in a matter of minutes, I was able to duplicate the work, which took me a decade in my graduate school experience," he said.

The entire industry has moved from the knowledge of 2,000 genes in 1990 to well over 100,000 this year. It has evolved from an industry focused on acquiring a complete set of human genes in a workable form or looking at an organism in all of its complexity to one focused on ways to use the knowledge of genes to identify targets and develop products to fight diseases. As Scott put it, "Genomics today is where the computer industry was in the 1970s."

Levin said his company decided to focus on all diseases, as opposed to just one. By developing small molecules, Millennium found a way to move from gene to target to hit to lead product. His company then applied that same formula to proteins and antibodies.

"What is the pharmaceutical company in the future?" Levin asked. "It's not just genes to products. It's genes to patient . . . We think this is really key to the pharmaceutical industry."

With pharmaceutical companies struggling to develop new products as their pipelines dwindle, a wide door opens for genomics and biotechnology companies. Large institutional investors are putting their money in companies that are over $1 billion in size, Levin said, and in order to keep those investments going, the industry must think broadly. The combination of therapeutic products and predictive medicine, he said, is going to revolutionize medicine.

And, Haseltine said, industrialized countries are getting richer and people will demand more medicines as a result. "There is an opportunity that is increasing the pay for these products," he said. "What our industry can do and what genomics can do is [they] can increase the productivity equation."

One way to do that is to focus on biotech-biotech mergers, the panelists said. Millennium's recent merger with LeukoSite Inc., also of Cambridge, serves as an example of one that can work. To become a $50 billion, or even a $200 billion, company takes outside help. In other words, a company can't do it all by itself, Levin said. It needs dozens and dozens of products.

But Scott warned that companies should choose acquisitions and mergers carefully so as to avoid a synergy trap, in which the company takes a step back a year to integrate technologies and staffs. M&As can "sometimes be a panacea for growth, but you have to be very selective."

To transition from drug discovery to marketing and selling drugs, companies need to be willing to outsource some work and hire the right mix of people, the panelists said. The hard part is not marketing and selling the drug, especially if it is a breakthrough product, Haseltine said. The hard part, he added, is finding the drug in the first place.

In the end, genomics will have touched every human being, the panelists said. It may even reach the point where a person's genetic structure is tracked on a computer chip from birth to the teen years to adulthood, Levin said. But the industry will have its limitations, and genes are not simply the cause of disease, Haseltine said.

"You can take someone with perfect genes and they will get old and die," he said. "And you cannot say it was genes that caused the disease. It's simply life."