By Arlene Weintraub
For weeks leading up to the 2001 Biotechnology Industry Organization convention, rumors swirled that the San Diego event would be overrun by greens bearing gripes about the ethics of genetic engineering. But on June 24, opening day of this lollapalooza of the biotech world, reports of impending mayhem proved to be greatly exaggerated.
Only about 750 protesters -- half the amount who protested at last year's convention in Boston -- bothered to show up. By Day 2, the protesters' population dwindled to about 70. They huddled in a small park across the street from the San Diego Convention Center, peacefully handing out flyers and happy to debate anyone passing by who was interested in the merits of biotechnology. The thousands of policemen recruited to shield BIO 2001 attendees from rowdy protesters looked bored as they gathered in small groups to chat, stretch, and yawn.
It was one more sign that, in the race to develop better medicines, foods, and technologies, the scientists seem to be outrunning the ethicists. This week's convention attracted a record 750 companies and 12,000 attendees to discuss topics ranging from coming advances resulting from mapping the human genome to how rice can be genetically modified to feed more people and prevent malnutrition in underdeveloped countries.
INCONSISTENT WITH NATURE.
For environmental groups, the issues remain the same: They're concerned that companies, in their rush to profit from advances in genetic engineering, are overlooking potential health risks to humans and animals. "Genetic engineering is bio-pollution," contends Wendy Dishman, community college sociology professor and volunteer for End Destructive Genetic Engineering. "It changes the cellular structure of cells in a way that's not consistent with the natural environment."
She sees rising rates of cancer, arthritis, asthma, and other diseases as evidence that Mother Nature doesn't like humans tinkering with the genetic code. Dishman traveled from Santa Monica to support the protesters. Protest Central was a truck near the park with a banner on top reading, "Weird Science Betrays Our Children."
But the message of Dishman and her colleagues was drowned out by the throngs of scientists inside the convention center. They gathered in capacity-filled rooms to discuss the industry's pressing issues: how to turn genomics discoveries into medicines personalized to each individual patient, how CEOs for biotech companies should decide when to outsource technology needs or develop them in-house, and, of course, how to raise capital in a difficult financial market.
SUNNY SIDE UP.
That's not to say the attendees completely ignored moral questions. The schedule included seminars on the ethics of cloning, preserving patient privacy, and promoting international cooperation in devising policies to protect patients. Still, the panels generally featured speakers from companies engaged in bioengineering, such as Genentech and Monsanto, talking with like-minded panelists.
Not a single environmental group was in sight. And the panels focused on the sunny side of genetic engineering, with such titles as "Conserving Endangered Species in the Genomics Era," in which four scientists described how genetic engineering could be used to prevent extinction.
That didn't sit well with people like Bruce Friedrich, campaign coordinator for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He joined the protesters to scold Burger King, among others, for supporting and subsidizing the development of genetically engineered food. "In the food industry, scientists are playing Dr. Frankenstein," he says. "They have created chickens that grow seven times faster than normal chickens. Artificial insemination has created turkeys that can't mate naturally anymore. These animals are crippled by the time they reach slaughterhouses."
The voices of Friedrich and others may have gone unheard this year, but there was a strong sense at BIO 2001 that the protest lull is just temporary. As advances from the decoding of the human genome start gaining steam, biotech execs whispered their fears that the opposition might strengthen. "The Religious Right could coalesce to produce a meaningful backlash," worries Stanley T. Crooke, CEO of ISIS Pharmaceuticals of Carlsbad, Calif. "Then we'll all be disappointed because drugs that could have been on the market in two or three years could take 15 or 20 years."
Crooke, a former board member of BIO, believes the industry needs to fend off that threat by making more of an effort to educate the public about the positive side of genetic engineering. "Once they realize that they will reap the therapeutic benefits, and so will their children and their children's children, they'll see that they have no good reason to protest biotech." He predicts that leaders on both sides will eventually come together in forums designed for peaceful debate of the issues.
But even as the protesters of BIO 2001 quietly bided their time across the street, it's clear the biotech industry has a long way to go before it's ready to shake hands with the opposition.
Weintraub, a correspondent for BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau, is covering the biotech conference
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht