A trade fair turns 20, and an industrial sector is coming of age. Where does BIO stand today? The number of exhibitors has slightly decreased, the conference is characterised by general themes and trends, and partnering has become the most important and indispensable part of the global event for biotechnology. What was once a gold rush atmosphere has given way to an experienced self-confidence about the economic importance of biotechnology. And what is surprising from a European perspective is the fact that the public discussion revolving around green genetic engineering has reached the BIO International Convention. Many speakers called for the intensive communication of the value of biotechnological research rather than just focusing on technological explanations.
Speaking at the Luncheon Talk, Jim Greenwood, BIO President and CEO, commented on the new self-confidence: “It is hard to believe, but this year BIO reaches a significant milestone as we celebrate 20 years of bringing innovation, opportunity and growth to an industry that heals, fuels and feeds the world. From a small beginning – less than 1,500 people attended the first BIO meeting in Boston in 1993 – our Convention has grown into the most influential biotech gathering in the world, attracting thousands of industry leaders from 4,000+ companies and 65 countries. The expansion of the Convention mirrors what has been taking place in the biotech industry. Today, there are more than 200 approved biologic medicines and vaccines, including treatments for cancer, multiple sclerosis and numerous other diseases and rare conditions. A record 17.3 million farmers in 28 countries are growing biotech crops, helping to feed a hungry world. Renewable fuels and renewable chemicals are helping to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and helping to grow a sustainable biobased economy.”
G. Steven Burrill, CEO of Burrill & Company, also presented impressive figures: worldwide there are more than 10,000 biotech companies that have placed around 1,000 products on the market and created around 3,800,000 jobs worldwide. Nevertheless, biotechnology companies still need to settle a number of important questions for which there will not be simple answers: Who will pay for healthcare services and who will decide on access to medical services? How can a balance be created as far as individual responsibility and cost for society are concerned? Should drug safety and efficacy be the only criteria for obtaining marketing authorisation or should cost also be taken into account? What does innovation mean today? How do we determine the benefits? In summary, we need to stop debating cost and start debating benefits. Big Pharma needs to provide new answers to such questions. Burrill suggests that Big Pharma is turning its back on the blockbuster strategy, reducing the costs incurred by clinical studies and cutting down on marketing expenditures.
As in 2012, BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg representatives are visiting the Convention, serving as trend scouts and networkers. Below you’ll find a colourful selection of themes and trends we have discovered for you.
Panel discussions focussing on the theme of healthcare dealt with the impact of Supreme Court and other decisions relating to the US Patent Act, which say that laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas are not patentable. These decisions and the US Patent Office’s ‘interim guidelines’ for these types of process claims have considerable impacts on the patentability of biomarkers and on personalised medicine in general. In 2012, the “Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc.” case (Supreme Court of the United States) attracted enormous attention. The patents covered a method developed by Prometheus that identified “relationships between concentrations of certain metabolites in the blood and the likelihood that a dosage of thiopurine drug will prove (either) ineffective or cause harm”. The Supreme Court ruled that the process invented by Prometheus was not eligible for patent protection because the process is an unpatentable law of nature (For further information please follow link on the right: "Mayo v. Prometheus: Natural Process + Known Elements = Normally No Patent").
Another case mentioned in this context was a PerkinElmer patent that relates to methods of determining the risk of foetal Down’s syndrome. The court ruled that the methods were not eligible for patent protection because no therapies are currently available to treat the disorder. However, the panel participants also highlighted that Europe and the USA differed considerably with regard to the patent eligibility of diagnostic tests and that EU patent law is more advantageous for the biotechnology sector.
In another panel, the American representatives expressed their concern about the current situation in Germany. The “Austerity vs. Growth: Will the Life Sciences be the Next European Bailout?” panel convened experts from academia and industry to discuss the impact of Europe’s economic crisis and the resulting austerity programmes on the competitiveness of the biopharmaceutical industry. Many European governments are implementing austerity measures that include price cuts and rebate reforms for innovative therapeutic products in order to generate savings and prevent healthcare collapse. This has a huge impact on companies, which spend billions annually on R&D. The panel predicted that in the long term, these measures will lead to a drug shortage, or no access to new drugs at all, in some EU countries. The panel also talked about the fact that pharmaceutical companies in the EU, but also worldwide, will be increasingly forced to show more evidence of how new drugs will add value to the market. Pharmaceutical companies like Lilly will place their new products into emerging and developing countries, which will enable stronger growth. And this is where the panel came up with the need for improved communication: in order to be able to counteract pricing pressure, which will aggravate in Europe and around the world, pharmaceutical and biotech companies need to actively engage into dialogue with politicians, and take all the measures necessary to get away from the image as cost drivers, establishing themselves instead as partners and problem solvers.
Many panels focussed on biofuels. One of the most interesting panels dealt with synthetic biology and its application in the biological degradation of toxic substances, the production of chemicals and the production of biofuels. The panels focused mainly on methods and processes from the field of systems biology. The workflow consists of three steps: 1. characterising and understanding, 2. planning and simulating, 3. putting together and optimising. The production of a second-generation biofuel from cellulose and hemicellulose using an enzyme cocktail was used as a practical example. Also worth mentioning is a start-up company that is active in the field of synthetic biology: the company Ginkgo BioWorks, which resulted from the iGEM competition, offers services and a kind of “fab lab” (fabrication laboratory) for assembling synthetic DNA. Alexandra Witze’s article entitled “Factory of life - synthetic biologists reinvent nature with parts, circuits” provides an excellent overview of synthetic biology and Ginkgo BioWorks (please follow link on the right).
On the very first day of the exhibition, the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance hosted “The Food Dialogues: Chicago”, bringing together farmers, consumers and others with varying perspectives. The panel was called “The Straight Story on Biotech in Agriculture: The Media and its Impact on Consumers”. Arguments similar to those discussed in Germany were exchanged, but the discussion reached no definite conclusions. Farmer Pam Johnson added that the dialogue about GMOs “can’t be based on fear, but needs to be based on science”. She also said that “there is room in this country (ed. note: the USA) for every sort of farmer, every size of farmer, every sort of farm – organic, conventional and GMO. We need them all so we can feed the world.”
This said, many of the numerous BIO panels dealing with the theme “feed the world” mainly discussed the blessings of GMO cultivation.