Conference brings new research to Chicago

By Ivana Susic

Approximately 15,000 attendees, along with representatives from 60 countries and 48 states,  crowded Chicago’s McCormick Place for the 17th annual BIO International Convention from May 3-6.

The conference brought together dozens of organizations involved in biotechnology, such as pharmaceutical companies, research firms, universities and patent lawyers.  It was designed to share groundbreaking research and foster new partnerships.

More than 1,000 speakers and 1,700 exhibitors were present, such as the National Cancer Institute,  Abbott Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson.  About 10,000 business meetings were conducted during the four-day conference.

There were 17 separate tracks and a total of 125 sessions. Each track had a separate central theme, such as Food and Agriculture, Legal/Intellectual Property, Biosecurity and Innovations in Vaccines. Various sessions were offered within each theme.

Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush spoke at the keynote luncheon on May 4 and touched on all the different fields on biotechnology. Former Vice President Al Gore spoke at the keynote luncheon on May 5 and focused on the new opportunities biotechnology presented to healing the world.

Editorial staff from Scientific American led a discussion about the state of biotechnology at “Worldview 2010: Scientific American’s Regional Bio-Innovation Scorecard” on May 5. Keynote speaker Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, said biotechnology is the “heart of the future and of the globe.”

The theme of this year’s BIO was “Heal, fuel, feed the world.” Many of the sessions addressed these concepts, with sessions such as “Conquering the Diseases of the Developing World,” “Moving Alternative Crops Into the Mainstream” and “How Public Perception Affects Adoption of Technologies that Help Feed the World.”

During a session from the Innovations in Vaccine track, “Building Vaccine Capacity in Developing Countries,” Erik Iverson, associate general counsel for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced the foundation will donate $10 billion over the next 10 years for vaccine development and distribution in developing countries. The priorities will be infectious diseases, HIV, and maternal and newborn health, he said.

Iverson said the Gates family hopes to call attention to what they feel is a monumental issue. He added that this is also meant to provide incentive for others to donate to providing vaccines to countries in need.

“I think we all need to work together to make this happen,” Iverson said.

When asked by the moderator what he would change about medical practice today if he could, Iverson said there was no way to pick just one issue to address.

“Putting your finger on one item belittles all the other issues,” he said. “[But] we need to come to the table and discuss matters openly … it doesn’t happen often enough.”

Dr. Jan ter Meulen, executive director for Vaccines Research at Merck, said the company is making progress toward a flu vaccine that could work for all strains, eliminating the current need for seasonal vaccines.

Currently, those who wish to get vaccinated against the flu must get a new shot every year because the virus mutates, rendering the past year’s flu shot ineffective.The immune system does not recognize the new virus and is unable to mount a defense.

Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals also announced work on an antibiotic that would work against all current bacteria resistant to other antibiotics, such as several strains of staph infection.

Another key topic at the conference involved food and agriculture; specifically, the use of genetically modified seeds and ingredients. Ron Moore, chairman of the Illinois Soybean Association, said there are not enough people educated on the role biotechnology plays in agriculture now or its importance for the feeding consumers in the future.

“The biotechnology revolution is the next Industrial Revolution,” Moore said.

Moore said he has a “deep appreciation” for what biotechnology has done for the farming industry. When he first began farming, he said he had to use 15,000 pounds of insecticide on his crops. Now, with seeds genetically engineered to better resist insects, he said he only has to use 1,000 pounds.

The yield from his fields has also increased, he said.  According to Moore, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.5 billion people by the year 2050. Farmers will have to double their production, he said, and there is no way to do this without the use of genetically modified seeds.

“I personally feel a moral responsibility to do what I can to help feed this country,” Moore said.

Michael Specter, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives,” also spoke about what he called the “misguided information” the public faces about genetically engineered foods.

He said the misinformation available on the Internet has spurred fear in many consumers who know nothing about genetically engineered foods and keeps people from making educated decisions.

“To use new technology presents a risk,” Specter said. “People don’t know how to assess risk in a way that makes sense. People don’t say, ‘We’ve planted hectares of this stuff and no one has gotten sick.’”

Exhibitors also offered many glances at their newest technology. Brazil presented a racecar that runs on biofuels. BioBus, a New York-based mobile science lab that runs on vegetable oil, has a green roof. It travels around and brings science to public school children, offering views of water fleas through research-grade stereoscopic microscopes.

On May 5, Revivicor, a company that specializes in regenerative medicine, brought along a bioengineered pig and calf. The calf had the gene that makes prions, the protein responsible for Mad Cow Disease, removed. The pig had a sugar removed from its DNA that distinguishes pig tissue from human tissue. This would allow for potential tissue and organ transplants into humans; the hope is that people’s immune systems would not reject the transplants. Linda Rhodes, veterinarian and founder of AlcheraBio said that while neither animal is meant for consumption, they behave the same way as any non-engineered animal.

Receptions at the end of May 4 and 5 were held in the exhibit hall and offered food,  drinks and entertainment from many of the countries represented. Shionogi Pharma Inc. had an interactive, life-size robot, Ireland had a three-piece musical group, Nebraska offered flat-iron steaks and Illinois had a live blues band.

The event began with 155 attendees in 1987, and was hosted by the Association of Biotechnology Companies. Since the Biotechnology Industry Organization was formed in 1993, attendance has steadily grown.

Jim Greenwood, President and CEO of BIO,  said humankind cannot meet demands of the growing populatition in an environmentally friendly way with the use of fossil fuels.  With global cooperation, he said it is possible to meet global needs.

“I believe we can save the entire world,” Greenwood said. “We will heal the world,  we will fuel the world, we will feed

the world.”