PHILADELPHIA _ With last year's hot topic of congressional FDAreform now at the mercy of presidential election-year politics,biotechnology industry advocates are turning their attention tobattling public fears and heading off ethical concerns about DNAengineering and gene discovery.

Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization(BIO), formally opened the group's 10th international conferenceMonday in Philadelphia by urging company executives to tackle"honestly" and "openly" outside suspicion and cynicism about theirdramatic scientific achievements.

"People are awed by the power of our technology to cure diseases,improve agriculture and protect the environment," Feldbaum said."But at the same time, they worry about the potential misuse ofgenetic information, the protection of our privacy and otherlegitimate issues."

Feldbaum said BIO, the industry's Washington-based lobbyinggroup, should be out front in pushing for safeguards againstdiscrimination based on genetic testing. He also urged biotechnologypractitioners, in racing forward on scientific and business fronts, totake time to make their work understandable to the public.

Feldbaum said BIO contends each day with fierce attacks againstbiotechnology. "Sensationalist critics," he said, "make charges thatsound like those old accusations of witchcraft."

He said BIO's members can play a key role in resolving concerns ofa "largely science-averse public" before misconceptions grab hold.

Abuse of the right to privacy through misuse of genetic information isa legitimate worry, Feldbaum said.

Referring to rapid progress in decoding the human genome and manyof life's biological mysteries, he said, "We have to be aggressive inprotecting genetic privacy. We must preserve personal individualcontrol over our own genome and medical histories."

The dilemma of satisfying public desire for new approaches tomedicine and agriculture while fending off charges of recklessness isnot limited to the U.S.

Biotechnology executives from around the world, participating in aninternational roundtable discussion Sunday, outlined similarproblems.

For example, in Australia, efforts to boost pork production andreduce fat in the meat through breeding of transgenic pigs have metwith resistance.

And in the European Union, officials recently turned down proposalsfor patenting biotechnology discoveries. They also favored labelingof genetically engineered foods, and to date only one modified foodproduct _ tomato paste _ has made it to market in one EuropeanUnion country _ the United Kingdom

BIO's five-day conference, which concludes Thursday, has attractedabout 3,500 participants from 30 countries. The organizationrepresents more than 650 companies, academic institutions and othergroups in the U.S. and 20 other nations.

This year's BIO gathering marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S.industry's inception with the launch of South San Francisco-basedGenentech Inc. in 1976.

Rather than looking back, BIO sought opinions from governmentofficials and scientists on their expectations for the next 20 years.

FDA Commissioner David Kessler said his agency "looks forward tocontinuing to work closely with the biotechnology industry to see thatsafe and effective therapies get to market expeditiously."

NASA Administrator Daniel Gordon predicted a greater role forspace-based experiments.

"Our successes in protein crystal growth will lead to additionalexperiments in which we use the quiescent environment of space toboth process and study biological structures that are difficult tohandle in earth's gravity," Gordon said.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said, "The greatest opportunity forprogress in the area of biotechnology lies in genetics, in mapping andunderstanding the human genome."

Specter, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing theU.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said federal fundingof basic biological research has been critical to the achievements ofthe U.S. biotechnology industry. n

-- Charles Craig

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