By Karen Pihl-Carey

Boston. A city known for great innovations such as the Internet, the telephone, modern surgery and genetic discoveries, a city called home for more than 250 biotechnology companies, is playing host this week to the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO) largest annual conference ever.

Through Thursday more than 7,000 participants and exhibitors, as well as a host of protesters, planned to besiege the city for BIO 2000 held at the Hynes Convention Center.

"The exhibit hall has been filled for six months," said Carl Feldbaum, president of Washington-based BIO. "We have more than 750 exhibitors. We've filled two floors at the Hynes Convention Center. We just about doubled the size of our exhibit hall from last year."

While last year's meeting in Seattle registered 5,700 participants, BIO had more than 7,000 people registered this year and expected even more to register on site. About 25 percent of those participants are flying in from other nations. Instead of increasing the number of workshops and seminars this year, Feldbaum said his staff worked on improving them. The sessions will cover everything from agricultural biotech and gene therapy issues to the recent volatility in the financial markets.

"The kind of stock volatility we're seeing now is reminiscent of 1993-94, when any clinical trial that went awry would affect the whole biotech sector, where investors were not discriminating between companies and technologies," Feldbaum told BioWorld Today. For example, he said, when three companies failed in clinical trials, the whole sector suffered.

"Then, you had a period of 1995 through 1998 where the investors became much more discerning and began to discriminate closely among various technologies and platforms and genomics companies," Feldbaum said. "And where a good clinical trial would certainly help that company and a failed one would hurt the company, it would not have impact over the whole sector."

The biotech industry now is in a different phase, which has to do with its increasing prominence, he said.

"We had 22 new drugs approved in 1999, which is a record, and we had controversies over biotech foods and the latest cloning of pigs for organ transplants," Feldbaum said. "We have been in the news on the front page every day. We have moved up from the science columns and an occasional article in the business pages to the front page somewhere."

Stocks have risen and fallen at the whim of investors because they now consist greatly of day-traders and retail investors "who in many cases don't know how to spell genomics, let alone know what these companies do," Feldbaum said. "I think the romance with the dot-coms is waning and much of that money is going toward biotech, but the investors are not particularly knowledgeable."

That is why biotech stocks plunged following a statement by President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair concerning the goal of public access to information derived from the Human Genome Project. The statement only reiterated what was already known to industry insiders, Feldbaum said.

Aside from sessions analyzing the financial markets, BIO 2000 will feature a number of well-known speakers, including actor Christopher Reeve, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

Feldbaum plans to introduce Reeve at the opening plenary session today, sharing as a sidenote his own personal experience with a biotech product. "I'm a new cancer survivor myself," Feldbaum said. "A new biotech diagnostic, a free PSA [prostate-specific antigen] test, caught a very, very early stage of prostate cancer. I'm actually a second-generation survivor," he said, adding that his father, a survivor of melanoma and prostate cancer, also will attend the conference.

With stories such as Reeve's struggle to walk again, despite an equestrian accident that paralyzed him five years ago, and Feldbaum's experience with cancer, BIO's president said he does not quite understand protesters rallying against genetic engineering. A grassroots gathering, called Biodevastation 2000, was scheduled to begin Friday and run through Thursday, allowing protesters an alternate conference to focus on areas exploring the potential dangers to ecological and human health and the "corporate monopoly on power, food and life."

Co-sponsors of the protester conference include the Institute for Social Ecology, the Council for Responsible Genetics and Greenpeace USA, among others.

Feldbaum said he does plan to address some of the protesters' concerns in his speech today, highlighting ethical issues and biotech responsibility.

"We are dealing very respectfully with folks that disagree," Feldbaum said. "They do have a First Amendment right to [demonstrate], and we certainly respect that, but there are limits. We have an equally constitutional right to assemble and speak."

BIO has been in touch with the Boston police and other law enforcement agencies to make sure the conference's participants can move freely from place to place. Feldbaum also wants those working in the industry to know the protests will likely continue at BIO 2001.

"We are making sure our people know that all this increased attention is not going to go away. It will probably increase in the future," he said.