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Biotech panel marks 50th anniversary of DNA double helix discovery by contemplating both the past and the future

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webcast Watch entire 1 hour, 2 minutes biotech panel discussion

– This year marks not only the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the DNA double helix, but also the 30th anniversary of genetic engineering and the start of the biotech boom, Nobel laureate James Watson noted in his talk at an October 11 Berkeley symposium on "The Double Helix and Biotech."

In 1973, Herbert Boyer of UC San Francisco and Stan Cohen of Stanford University discovered enzymes that could cut and splice DNA, allowing them to add genes from one organism to the cells of another. The technique, called recombinant DNA, led to the genetic engineering revolution. That, along with the creation of Genentech, Inc., in 1976 by Boyer and venture capitalist Robert Swanson, spawned a new industry that today includes more than 4,000 companies worldwide.

Today, more than 150 biotech drugs are on the market and nearly 400 more are in the pipeline, noted Shereen El Feki, international healthcare correspondent for The Economist and moderator of a panel discussion by biotech founders at the symposium sponsored by UC Berkeley, Genentech and Tularik, Inc. Along with these new drugs, however, has come controversy around genetic testing, cloning, designer babies and patenting of genes, among other issues.

In an hour of discussion led by El Feki, Boyer, Tularik co-founder and current CEO David Goeddel, Chiron Corp. co-founder Edward Penhoet and Biogen co-founder Charles Weissmann seemed generally in agreement about the state of their industry. All unanimously deplored the country's restrictions on stem cell research, which they feel is the future of the biotech industry.

"This has to be resolved, or U.S. biotech may be played down as a result of the bad policies," Boyer said.

"If we don't do it here," Weissmann agreed, "some others will do it elsewhere."

New proposals by the National Institutes of Health to emphasize "mission-oriented" research also came in for universal bashing.

"I share concern about a movement, at NIH in particular, for more mission-oriented research," said Penhoet, now senior director for science and higher education programs at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. "I think that industry, with more than 4000 companies, and now all the pharma companies, have done an extraordinary job of extracting all the value from the basic science that gets conducted in universities, funded by NIH. And the notion that there is a lot of extremely valuable science left untapped in this country and that needs somehow an outlet different from the biotech companies, seems to me simply incorrect. Every study that's been done on this shows that this is not the case. "If anything, one of the biggest concerns is too many companies are starting these days with ideas that are still basically research ideas and not even ready for commercialization. I think it's a very worrisome trend to see NIH start to worry about essentially more 'mission-oriented' or disease-curing research."

The panel harkened back 30 years to the climate of biotech's early years. Until Genentech came along, Penhoet said, "drug development was a stochastic process" of testing many chemicals to see which would work. "That meant, basically, dumping chemicals on cells and testing them in animals, and if they work, it's great, but very little was known about the mechanism by which they worked, especially in the cancer field." Now "there is no random screening - all new drug development is dependent on knowledge" of a target structure, such as an enzyme that needs to be knocked out.

The problem, then as now, is "turning a target into a drug," said Weissmann, head of the Neurogenetics Unit at Imperial College School of Medicine at St. Mary's Hospital in London, and a professor in the Prion Unit at the Medical Research Council. Twenty-five years ago, when he co-founded Biogen, the company pinpointed 12 potential drugs, "and all you would have to do is go out and clone the proteins and you would have a drug. Within a few years these drugs - human growth hormone, insulin, interferon - had all been done. That was really the easy part." Today, he added, the number of potential drug targets is in the tens of thousands.

"I think today this is the big problem that faces the industry: you have a lot of targets, but from all those targets there are relatively few drugs. The first phase was where you shook the tree and the ripe apples fell down. The second phase is where you have to climb up and pick every apple by hand, and that is a good deal more difficult and laborious."

Venture capital funding is not as plentiful either. After Goeddel left Genentech to found Tularik with Rober Tjian in 1991, he said, "we felt it was a 20-year venture to build a full fledged pharmaceutical company, from start to highly profitable products on the market. I see now, venture capitalists are looking for things that are more advanced, maybe already somehow in the clinic or spun out of another company, as opposed to just the ideas.

"If you can get venture funding and stay private for a while, I still think that's the way to go, because the financial pressure is probably even greater after you're public. In the current environment there is a lot of very short term pressure."

"The days in which money could be freely given to an individual with new ideas and new technology are over," Boyer agreed.

One improvement, however, is that the stigma once attached to academics who worked with biotech companies has gone away, replaced by the feeling that academia is a natural partner to the biotech industry. This is particularly important because pharmaceutical companies are a lot less interested today in funding basic research.

"There is a rational, legitimate approach in which academic research and research and development in the corporation can be very advantageous to both parties, and I think that has proven to be the case," Boyer said. "I think today there are quite good relations between academia and the R&D components of biotech, and other drug industries as well. It has evolved, it was a little rocky 25 years ago, but today it's a very synergistic interaction between the two."