- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

Next week, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) will host its annual convention in Washington. It’s the first time the organization has held its annual meeting in the District, and the timing is appropriate. The biotechnology industry has been one of the few economic bright spots since the Internet bubble burst. It has the potential to greatly alter the social landscape — for better and worse.

Yet, reporters have not paid as much attention as they should have. That is likely to change, and not just next week (although convention planners are expecting at least 15,000 attendees.) As BIO president and CEO Carl Feldbaum pointed out this week in a meeting with editorial writers and reporters of The Washington Times, the industry has gradually moved from science pages to business pages to front pages of newspapers.

The industry is a vast one, but it’s also highly paradoxical. The molecular techniques and nascent technologies that could eventually cure genetic diseases, help individuals shed pounds and avoid flu infections could also be used to create monsters or manufacture terrible plagues.

At the moment, many are focusing on biotechnology’s potential benefits. Some 119 nations are attempting to find their niches in areas ranging from disease cures to forestry development.

The United States remains the world leader in biotechnology. That is despite President Bush’s decision to limit the number of stem cell lines that could be experimented on. Mr. Feldbaum suggested that the political deadlock on stem cells could be broken by the emergence of a single cure from that research. The industry’s capital shortages could be greatly reduced if Congress were to separate the issue of human cloning from research cloning via a law, as a bill introduced by Sens. Orrin Hatch and Dianne Feinstein proposes. Like many other industry and research organizations, BIO advocates the legalization of therapeutic cloning and the prohibition of human cloning.

Such research remains a contentious ethical issue, but one of only many that has developed as the industry has evolved. As a consequence, BIO personnel meet regularly with representatives from a variety of religious organizations to consider everything from therapeutic cloning to the consequences of nations not being able to afford access to needed biotechnologies.

Many poor nations could afford access to genetically modified foods and are suffering as a result of Europe’s recalcitrance on the issue. Europe is losing both talent and capital due to its intransigence. Nations that do not invest in biotechnology run the serious risk of being left far behind. The economic potential of biotechnology in the first quarter of the 21st century may be similar to that of information technology in the last quarter of the 20th century.

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