PHILADELPHIA _ Making the public more aware ofbiotechnology is a challenge industry advocates say they mustembrace to offset misconceptions about the science and Tuesday theywent live on daytime television with one of the most complexsubjects _ genomics.

A video conference linking panelists in Toronto with those at theBiotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) 10th internationalconference in Philadelphia was broadcast via satellite to 400 sites inCanada and the U.S.

The 10 participants included researchers and company executivesdiscussing the promises and problems of deciphering the geneticsecrets of the human genome to reveal the underlying mechanisms ofdisease.

Although the familiar refrains of revolutionizing medicine wereprevalent, cautionary notes were sounded on the potential for misuseof genetic information and on other ethical issues raised by reducinglife to its genetic realities.

The panelists also acknowledged gene-based disease treatments andcures _ such as gene therapy _ are still years away.

SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceutical Corp.'s Martin Rosenberg, whois senior vice president of biopharmaceutical research anddevelopment, said translating gene discoveries into commercial drugsis a process that could take another 10 to 12 years.

Rosenberg, who works at the London-based SmithKline Beechamplc's U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia, was joined on the panel byWilliam Haseltine, chairman and CEO of Human Genome SciencesInc., of Rockville, Md.

SmithKline has paid Human Genome Sciences $125 million over thecourse of their collaboration for genetic data to make drugs.

"Genomics," Haseltine said, "is a transforming event for science andmedicine. Everything we do will be influenced by understanding thegenetic system."

He said his company virtually has "a complete list of genes in thehuman genome catalogued by cell type."

Alan Bernstein, director of the Samuel Luenfeld Research Institute ofMount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said, "Soon we will have all theinstructions on how to make a human being _ what thinking meansand what memory means. It will totally transform how we viewourselves and disease. We can't anticipate all the ways it will impactus."

Michael Hayden, director of the Centre for Molecular Medicine andTherapeutics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver,said the Human Genome Project, which is the worldwide effort tosequence and map all approximately 100,000 genes in the genome, isthe equivalent of "establishing a dictionary of 100,000 words."

The next challenge, he added, will be to define the words; that is,determine how the genes function.

James Wilson, director of the Institute for Human Gene Therapy atthe University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said genomics willlead to cures for diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, "but it could taketime."

He used his experience with research on gene therapy for cysticfibrosis to illustrate how finding a disease gene is merely the first stepin developing a cure.

The cystic fibrosis gene was identified in 1989 and four years laterclinical trials were begun with gene therapy to deliver a normal copyof the disease gene to cells lining the lungs.

The therapy seemed straightforward, Wilson said, but the vectorsused to deliver the normal gene generated an unanticipated immunesystem response that destroyed the treatment's effectiveness.

Wilson said the immune system response is a problem all the variousgene therapy vectors will have to overcome before they can be usedas commercial products.

He also noted that seven years after the cystic fibrosis gene wasdiscovered researchers continue to argue about how its protein works.

On the social, legal and ethical implications of genomics the panelistsat the BIO video conference agreed the issues could become ascomplex as the science itself.

Hayden said government safeguards will be needed to preventdiscrimination based on genetic information and to protect privacyrights.

And to offset adverse public reaction to genomics, Phillip Reilly,executive director of the Shriver Mental Retardation Research Centerin Waltham, Mass., said, "We need good, effective strategies toeducate people that there's more good than harm in this information."

Joining Reilly, Wilson, Haseltine and Rosenberg on the Philadelphiapanel were Laurence Reid, associate director of businessdevelopment for Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Cambridge,Mass.; Elizabeth Silverman, a biotechnology analyst with Punk,Ziegel & Knoell in New York; and Roy Levitt, executive vicepresident of Magainin Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Plymouth Meeting,Pa.

Participating with Bernstein and Hayden in Toronto were Lap-CheeTsui, senior scientist in the Department of Genetics at the ResearchInstitute of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and RobertGarvin, founder and chairman of GeneScape Inc., of Mississauga,Ontario.

The five-day BIO conference concludes Thursday. n

-- Charles Craig

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.