By Randall Osborne
NEW YORK — With Congress' proposed anti-cloning bill making headlines in the past year, the ethics of biotechnology became a hotter issue than ever — and companies had better get used to that heat, said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). The group's 12th annual international conference opens here today.
"This has not been an easy year, and we should expect many more like it in the future," Feldbaum told BioWorld Today. "The excitement and the drama are not going away."
Ethics issues are hardly new, nor are they "necessarily more important then the economic and social issues, but they've won their place at the same level," Feldbaum said.
In February, a filibuster blocked the anti-cloning bill, which Feldbaum said would have stopped important stem-cell research, from a floor vote. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 12, 1998, p. 1.)
Biotechnology made a name for itself by "just saying no" to the cloning of a human being. "Rather than eroding the industry's reputation, [the fight over cloning] enhanced it, and we gained respect on Capitol Hill," Feldbaum said.
Placed more often in the media spotlight, industry leaders will be required to explain succinctly the nature of their research, he added.
"When you're out there, and you're accurate and honest, a fair press tends to follow," he said.
With more than 4,000 attendees expected at this year's conference, Feldbaum said, "one over-arching theme is probably not realistic." But Feldbaum's keynote speech, which he was to deliver today to open the conference, will deal strongly with biotechnology's ethics and how its leaders make clear their industry's agenda as they wield increasing influence.
The public's lack of sophistication about biotechnology is likely what led to last month's skyrocketing of Rockville, Md.-based EntreMed Inc.'s stock, on the heels of reports about the company's cancer drug program, but the hysteria "was quickly self-correcting," Feldbaum observed. (See BioWorld Today, May 5, 1998, p. 1.)
"People were awe-struck at first, and then it corrected itself," as the company explained its anti-angiogenesis compounds more fully, he added.
Fifty news organizations, with 120 editors and reporters, will cover the conference this year, Feldbaum noted — another indicator of the broad general interest in biotechnology.
"That doesn't break the record, it shatters the record," he said. "It's more than double the coverage we've had in any former year. I've got an interview Friday with Vogue [magazine]," he added.
Among the meetings at this year's event is an investor and partnering conference, June 15 and 16. Almost 90 companies are scheduled to make presentations at the meeting, the first of its kind at the BIO conference.
The days are over when biotechnology companies would arrive at conferences with buyout prices ready, Feldbaum said.
"CEOs and business development people have created whole new paradigms of partnering and licensing, and there are enormously innovative cases studies," he said. "It's not this formulaic 'big fish eats little fish.' It's not a New Yorker cartoon. It's much more sophisticated stuff, having to do with what you bring to the table in terms of technology, management and business acumen."
The conference ends Thursday. *