Biotech at a Crossroads

Remember this? "It's the land of the future, and always will be." A decade ago, that phrase applied to Brazil. Today, it could be biotechnology. No industry has shown such potential, yet disappointed so often in the past 20 years. Genetic science is complicated, expensive, highly regulated -- and it's often risky for the patient. It has been a frustrating journey to find winners, and even then, the payoffs have tended to be small.

But the biotech industry may be at a turning point. The mapping of the human genome created the new base. Now, super-computers are being harnessed to lab work to speed up data searches. As a result, the identification and sequencing of the SARS virus happened in record time. On May 19, investors drove Genentech (DNA ) Inc.'s share price up 45% based on an announcement that it had seen good results from anti-cancer trials. For the year, the Standard & Poor's biotech index is up 19.6%.

Investors are clearly back. But what's the real future? For Los Angeles-based science writer Arlene Weintraub, there remain five key hurdles to clear, from the rise of a global bioinformatics industry to smarter regulation. Weintraub and Senior Editor Neil Gross in New York have been following the industry for a combined 20 years. "Right now, I'm seeing a lot of hyped-up drugs," says Arlene. With each boom, says Neil, "I anticipate the bust." But this time, both note, the industry has a fighting chance if it can mature to the next level.

That's the kind of reasoned skepticism we all need.

We're also pleased to note that BusinessWeek distinguished itself with another recent story. Our cover "Fighting Poverty" (Oct. 14, 2002) was selected by New York-based World Hunger Year as a winner of the Harry Chapin Media Awards. The prize, named after the late singer-songwriter, honors coverage of hunger and poverty-related issues.

Our report, led by Senior News Editor Pete Engardio and Bombay Bureau Chief Manjeet Kripalani, looked at the dismal results of five decades of foreign aid spending and asked what programs really work. We found quite a few.

Engardio, Kripalani, and their team traveled to Mexico, Bangladesh, Mozambique, India, China, and Uganda to look at unique projects. Although their reporting was often critical, it showed that many of the underlying causes of extreme poverty actually can be solved with well-run and adequately funded programs. Said the judges: "It's good to see solutions, not just problems."

By Bob Dowling, Managing Editor, International

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