NICE, France _ Some 1,750 delegates from 67 countries aregathered in this French Riviera city for the 7th meeting -- normallytriennial _ of the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB). Itsorganizers advanced the date from 1996 to 1995, and placed theevent in France, to coincide with the 100th anniversary observancesof Louis Pasteur's death at age 73 in 1895.

At the opening ceremony here Sunday evening, Francois Gros,director-general of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, acclaimed hisillustrious predecessor as "the veritable precursor of modernbiotechnology." Gros cited Pasteur's contributions to the basicscience and practical technology of fermentation, plant and animalmicrobiology, infection and immunology.

Then, on a patently modern note, he recalled "the interesting fact thatthe first patent application in the domain of the life sciences _ thusin biotechnology _ goes back to 1873, filed by Louis Pasteur todescribe certain improvements in fermentation."

Through Thursday, congress participants will hear 345 papers in 60sessions, and see 1,041 posters, covering every aspect ofbiotechnology from abzymes to zygotes, from agroindustry andbioprocessing to new proteins and predictive microbiology.

An adjacent industrial exposition, "BioExpo '95," is showcasing thegoods and services of 185 companies from a dozen countries ofEurope, plus Canada, Japan and the U.S.

Gene Therapy For Baldness, But Not For Blue Eyes

At Monday morning's plenary session, medical geneticist RobertWilliamson, of St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London,reviewed his pioneering work, and future prospects, in gene therapyfor cystic fibrosis. Then, prompted by a question from the floor, hedisclosed a serendipitous gene connection with baldness.

Polycystic ovary syndrome, Williamson reported, is a familialdisorder in women, transmitted by a gene harbored in the malegenome. He noted that almost all of the male relatives of suchpatients had male pattern baldness, presumably linked to the samepolycystic gene.

Pharmaceutical companies, Williamson told his audience, have beenless than enthusiastic about most of his gene therapy proposals, butall expressed interest in correcting the baldness gene.

In a separate afternoon session on "Benefits for Society FromModern Biotechnology," Jonathan Knowles, of the Glaxo Institutefor Molecular Biology in Geneva, quoted a recent conversation hehad with Nobelist James Watson, co-father of the double helix anddirector of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in Cold SpringHarbor, N.Y. Watson opined, Knowles said, "that somatic genetherapy is a waste of time, but that germline [alteration] will be itsmain future application."

Knowles himself predicted that "within five years we will have genesfor most major diseases."

Next Time In Budapest

At a crowded press conference Monday morning, the scientificsecretary of the conference, Lucien Penasse, called on thefederation's Hungarian member, Prof. L. Nyeste, to announce thatthe 8th EFB Congress will take place in Budapest, on Aug. 18through 22, 1997. Nyeste, of the Budapest Technical Universityfaculty, is chairman of the event's organizing committee. Heobserved that the accelerating pace of biotechnology activity dictatespermanently compressing the former triennial periodicity to abiennial interval.

Given the preponderance of local journalists at the press conference,much of the discussion focused on official representatives presentingand defending the French government's financial support forbiotechnology.

Among the informants facing the media was Carl Feldbaum,president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). His isan international, rather than an American, body, he pointed out, with"more than two dozen member companies in Europe, and theirnumber is growing."

An unidentified U.S. reporter, resident in France, asked Feldbaum:"Should we be happy with what President Clinton and VicePresident Gore are going to do with biotech _ what they've done tohealth care and the information highway? Wouldn't you rather stayaway from that?"

"Not at all," Feldbaum rejoined. "We have found that constructiveengagement is better than non-engagement." He added: "We havehad a really difficult and bruising 16 or 18 months with the [Clinton]administration. The bridges, though, have not been burned."

At which point, the American journalist interposed: "But it's bettertoday to get five minutes on Rush Limbaugh than it is to get threehours at the White House."

To which Feldbaum replied, "Going to the White House does notpreclude even meeting with Newt Gingrich." Emphasizing that BIO's"strategy is to remain rigorously non-partisan," he allowed that "afterthe health care [reform] experience, the feeling toward theadministration prevalent in the biotechnology industry is moredistant than close." n

-- David N. Leff Science Editor

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