CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Several speakers at Monday's conferencehere on "Critical Strategic Concerns for the Telecommunicationsand Biotechnology/Medical Products Industries," gave theirperspectives on the biotechnology industry at a session titled"Technology Policy in the '90s." The two-day event, whichcontinues today, is co-sponsored by Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology's Enterprise Forum Inc. and Massachusetts state'sInternational Trade Advisory Board.

Opening the session, MIT's president, Charles Vest, examinedthe role of research institutions. He cited three examples of "thepressing crisis in science and technology policy,J on which thenation is in debate:

-- "First, instant global communication is a fact;

-- "Second, the rise of biotechnology has exploded the horizon ofmedical science; the life sciences have become a new industry;

-- "Third, the threatened environment is also generating newindustries."

Taking several leaves from his new book, Head to Head: TheComing Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe and America,economist and dean of MIT's Sloan School of ManagementLester Thurow made several observations about biotechnology."Ask Japan, Germany and the United States to name thoseindustries that they think are necessary to give their citizens aworld-class standard of living in the first half of the 21stcentury,J he said, Iand they will return remarkably similarlists: microelectronics, biotechnology, the new materials-sciences industries, telecommunications, civilian aviation,robotics plus machine tools and computers plus software. Healso pointed out that "In biotechnology, the U.S. has a big leadover the rest of the world, with more Ph.D.s than all othercountries combined.

Closer to the science than to the political economics ofbiotechnology, Daniel Tosteson, dean of Harvard Medical School,cited as "reason for optimism, the extraordinary pace ofdiscovery in molecular and cell biology, immunology,microbiology and neurobiology."

Tosteson also declared: "It's no secret that the current worldleadership of the U.S. pharmaceutical and biotech industrieswas built in no small part on the basic biomedical researchsupported by the taxpayer at the National Institutes of Health.Moreover, these industries invest substantially and directly inbasic as well as applied research and development. Theirfuture progress depends crucially on sustaining and increasinginvestment in biomedical research."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., also spoke. As chair of the fullCommittee on Labor and Human Resources, which hasjurisdiction over the FDA, Kennedy reminded the conferencethat the FDA has Isuch enormous importance inpharmaceuticals and biotech areas." He added, "All of us knowthat (FDA) is understaffed and poorly equipped to deal withthe challenges of the future. Maybe the larger pharmaceuticalcompanies can tolerate the delays of the FDA in itsconsideration of (applications). Many smaller companies clearlycannot. That is why the last Congress passed the user feeprovision, which basically permits the smaller companies toescape any kind of user fee."

Massachusetts Gov. William Weld cited many positive results ofhis state's business-promoting policies. However, he said, onething that Ihas literally caused consternation in this industry,both on Wall Street and locally, has been President Clinton'ssuggestion of price control on drugs. One byproduct of that hasbeen that one of our biotech firms, Cambridge Biotech, in theWorcester area, has had to delay its decision to build a $28million facility in the central part of the state."

Alyson Stone, coordinator of investment relations at CambridgeBiotech, later told BioWorld: "That price control factor was partof it. I would add that prudent cash usage is another reason.Given the fact that the government's health-care reform plansare uncertain, which seems to have affected our entireindustry, we felt it was a good time to pause and watch ourcash. We're going to revisit it again in November."

-- David N. Leff Science Editor

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