Biotech century ending?
This miniseries charts the further collapse of the biotech empire, particular in the supposedly highly lucrative biomedical sector since the latter part of 2000. It is now desperately grasping for support from the taxpayer by hyping genetics and bio-defence. Dont be fooled.
Bad science and dangerous medicine are bringing down the biotech empire, but our governments are throwing more good money after it. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.
The biotech slump is nowhere more visible than in Washington DC, where the industry congregated at the end of June to get the federal government to fill the funding void. The desperate Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) mounted an unusually extensive public outreach campaign for its annual meeting, with a barrage of advertising in newspapers and TV, and a two-day festival on the National Mall.
Last year saw only 4 biotech companies go public, a 10-fold drop since 2000; in Europe, only 3 biotech companies went public last year. Venture capital for new firms totaled $465 million, a drop of 70% compared to the same period in 2002. So, hope turns to the US government.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is mandated to spend 2.5% of its extramural budget - $560 million this year - on small business awards. In a speech to the BIO convention, 23 June, George Bush backed even more federal investment in biotech. He called on congress to pass a piece of legislation - ProjectBioShielf - that would give $ 6 billion over the next 10 years for research and development to counter bioterrorism (see "Bio-defence mania grips United States", this issue).
"As always in Washington, the money is flowing both ways," writes a journalist in Nature. Republican legislators, in particular, have benefited from large contributions from biotech companies. In return, critics say, the legislators have worked to weaken the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the industry.
But even this increasingly cosy relationship with the government won't save the biotech industry, analysts say; and $ 6 billion isn't much.
Across the Atlantic, Britain is to spend another £50 million or more on genetic research over the next 3 years. The government released a white paper in June, outlining plans to boost funding for 'health' genomics projects from genetic testing and counseling to gene therapy and studies of gene-drug interactions. The Health Department will fund a pilot to attempt to identify and treat as many as 1 000 people with a family history of high cholesterol in their blood, which increases the risk of early heart attack.
To placate critics, there are also plans to protect people from misuse of genetic information by introducing a law that would make it illegal to test an individual's DNA without consent. The government has reiterated its support for the existing moratorium on employers or insurers using genetic information until 2006.
At the same time, the Medical Research Council (MRC), the main body responsible for divesting public funds for biomedical research, is cutting back on basic research. In April, the MRC proposed to move the prestigious National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill, North London to Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge to save money and to improve interactions between basic and clinical research. Biomedical researchers at Mill Hill were furious, they said they already have a strong record of collaborating with clinical researchers at various London hospitals, which employ a wider range of specialists than is found at Addenbrooke's. Their protest, supported by several Members of Parliament, led to the plans being shelved for the time being. A task force chaired jointly by MRC chief George Radda and Colin Blakemore, University of Oxford neuroscientist who will succeed Radda as chief executive in October, will decide the future of the Institute.
The MRC was earlier heavily criticized by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology for "capricious funding decisions", especially for its "politically driven" BioBank project to amass DNA samples from 500 000 UK citizens in a bid to identify gene variants for susceptibility to a range of major diseases, such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
These latest spending sprees are symptomatic of the lack of scientific imagination in the corporate establishment after decades of mind-numbing genome sequencing and genomics research have produced so little of the promised benefits.
A new report from Institute of Medicine says the US government needs a more systematic way of dealing with bioscience mega-projects, such as the human genome project. The NIH needs a "more open and systematic method" for soliciting and vetting proposals. Chair of the panel, Joseph Simone, says "clear but flexible" entry and exit plans are necessary for researchers. For instance, the panel noted that the Human Genome Institute has struggled to redefine its mission since completing its namesake task. The report also recommends developing incentives and rewards for scientists willing to spend their careers guiding large projects which can now be "academically dead". Indeed.
The futility of identifying 'predisposing genes' in the human genome is becoming increasingly clear as genes and genomes are now known to mutate, reshuffle and rearrange in response to environmental toxins and hazards (see "Health & the fluid genome" miniseries). Gene technology projects, from animal bio-pharming and cloning to gene therapy and xenotransplantation are collapsing because they have failed to deliver the goods and the inherent hazards involved have become all too evident (see other articles in this series). It is time our governments stop throwing good money after bad medicine and invest in genuinely health-enhancing projects that improve the quality of our food, our air, water and land.
Article first published 17/07/03
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