BRUSSELS, Belgium The EuropaBio ¿98 conference in Brussels tried to focus on what the European biotechnology industry would like to see as the real issues in developing biotechnology¿s potential: business development and marketing, finance, technology transfer, regional clusters, and science and technology. But the outside world in terms of regulatory and public perception issues imposed itself on the discussions, too.

The good news for the sector came from speakers such as Gabriele Pirstadt, from the ministry of economic affairs of the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia, who listed the efforts his region was making to support biotechnology. These included simplified regulatory procedures and the elimination of bureaucratic obstacles to gene technology; sponsorship of smaller biotechnology firms; the establishment of biomedicine technology transfer centers; plans for high-containment laboratory facilities that can be rented; and the creation of three regional funds for biotechnology firms, with combined financial resources of DM170 million (US$85 million). As a result, the region now hosts 102 companies involved in biotechnology, more than double the 1994 total, and has shown a rise of 50 percent in biotechnology employment over the last three years.

Nicholas Frey, of Optimum Quality Grains, in the U.S., told an enthusiastic audience how his company¿s high-oleic soybeans will be one of the first products of biotechnology that will offer consumer benefits of improved nutrition, good taste and traceability for a major food ingredient and will open the door to a range of further nutritional innovations, such as enhancing isoflavones and vitamin E in soy products to reduce the risks of cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease.

Optimism, Uncertainty In Evidence

The commercialization of early-stage research assets through spin-out strategies was demonstrated by Janet Dewdney, of AdProTech, a new company consisting of a team spun out from London-based SmithKline Beecham plc¿s research department and backed by venture capital. It is now taking potential anti-inflammatories and cardiovasculars to Phase II clinical evaluation projects which were only unexploited SmithKline research assets a year ago. Dewdney claimed the progress is the result of ¿first-rate science, talented scientists, experience in drug discovery and, above all, focus.¿

Werner Cautrels, head of research at Solvay Pharma ceuticals, of Belgium, spelled out how his firm has built its biotechnology business by acquiring ¿real experts outside the company¿ to fit its own internal strengths. Its alliances with other firms have ¿effected a major paradigm shift of the discovery process¿ in his firm, he said, through the import of combinatorial chemistry and high-capacity screening assays.

Teams of scientists recounted their successes in improving Chinese wheat cultivars, while a string of industrialists explained how they had created virtually integrated pharmaceutical companies or successfully exploited niches in the diagnostic market. Senior figures from the investment community listed their approaches to venture capital and mergers and acquisitions, as well.

Where the tone became more uncertain was in the area of legislation, consumer and customer relations, ethics and public perception. The uncertainty sprang largely from the fact that the meeting took place against a background of change, concern and even downright obstructionism with respect to biotechnology, both from the public and from some European Union (EU) institutions and member states.

Pressure Grows For GMO Moratorium

Emma Bonino, European consumer affairs commissioner, in her opening address to the meeting, said the European Commission is urging an extension of the existing rules on product liability so that producers, farmers and merchants will be liable if a genetically modified organism (GMO) agricultural product they developed, planted, commercialized or processed turns out to be unsafe, even when it has been approved by the authorities. At present the EU rules in this area cover processed food, but not primary agricultural products. This means, she went on, that ¿while possible risks arising from ketchup produced from GMO tomatoes are covered because it is processed food, the producer of the GMO tomato itself would not be liable.¿

The commissioner also posed one of the questions that in the EU hangs particularly over biotechnology products at the moment, while pressure grows for a moratorium on GMO crops and on a range of biotechnology techniques. ¿[Biotech nology] is there, and it is there to stay,¿ she said, pointing to the industry¿s potential in the treatment of rare diseases. ¿For this alone, we should be grateful to biotechnology.¿

But, she said, for some products the benefit ¿may not be so obvious.¿ Biotechnology is a mechanism ¿helping insurance companies reject customers with hidden genetic defects,¿ she suggested. ¿I can fully understand that in some member states there is no great enthusiasm¿ for GMOs, she added. ¿We are facing a very difficult moment for the progress of GMO products. A public acceptance, which one could have reasonably expected to occur, is very far from being reached.¿