Biotech firms figure into homeland security

Military and federal health officials, seeking cutting-edge technologies to defend the country against bioterrorism and protect soldiers on the battlefield, are turning to the biotechnology industry for help.

More than 300 biotech representatives packed a hotel conference room in Washington, D.C., April 30 — double the number that was anticipated — to attend the biotechnology industry's first-ever homeland security conference.

One representative at the conference called it a patriotic outpouring to help in the war against terrorism. "I don't see a whole lot of difference from what's going on in this room and the Manhattan Project," he said, referring to the government's secret plan in the 1940s to develop an atomic bomb.

By all accounts, biotech companies may become significant players for federal agencies, including the Defense Department, which co-sponsored last month's event with the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

"We also concluded [that] in addition to solving the immediate problems of biodefense and health, there are also significant opportunities to move forward into additional areas such as materials science and logistics, renewable energy sources [and] novel means of protecting servicemen and servicewomen," said Col. Jerry Warner of DOD's Office of Net Assessment.

In the long term, biotechnology may not only address defense requirements, Warner said, but may also "move the science into new areas, new thresholds, spinning off both commercial products and services for the general American public and economy." Such applications could mean using biomaterials for camouflage, battlefield wound healing, polymers for protective clothing and sleeping bags, innovative drug delivery systems, and DNA diagnostic and detection technologies for rapid assessment of whether a biological attack has occurred.

In addition, the technology may help lighten a 21st-century soldier's burden. "Some of the applications of biologic technologies in computing hold out the promise of reducing the weight that a combat soldier has to deal with," said Douglas Bauer, director of counterterrorism coordination at the National Academy of Sciences.

Carl Feldbaum, president of BIO, said DOD officials knew they couldn't develop such technologies internally and had few dealings with biotech companies. He said DOD's Office of Net Assessment approached BIO (www.bio.org) to begin an interface even before Sept. 11.

Although "DOD had been able to integrate chemistry and physics and engineering disciplines into the defense science base, they had not been able to integrate biology — particularly biotechnology — recognizing that the U.S. biotech industry is by far the largest and most advanced in development in the world and therefore could convey a strategic advantage," said Feldbaum, who also recently met with Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security.

"It's new and emerging with a very different culture," he added. "The biotech industry is not one that's used to government contracting. In fact, only a handful of biotech companies have dealt with DOD in the past."

The conference was aimed at bridging the divide between the military and the biotech industry. Throughout the conference, time was allotted for companies to give 15-minute presentations of their products or emerging technologies, which included vaccines, detection or diagnostic systems, and drug delivery products.

Representatives from DOD and the Department of Health and Human Services also discussed available grants and federal procurement requirements, described the role and operations of different agencies and listed their technology needs.

Biotech companies must learn how the federal government operates, several people said, but the federal government must streamline its efforts to better engage the industry.

"And it seems to me the government at a minimum has got to be a better partner as we play this critical role in the days ahead," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who addressed the conference.

Wyden is co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) that will create a central clearinghouse for companies to present their new products and for federal agencies to see how those products meet their needs, establish a test bed facility to assess the products and better mobilize the private sector following a terrorist attack or other emergency.

Feldbaum said the feedback and conference attendance was more than expected. The biotech industry's involvement in homeland security is just beginning, he said.

"After this is over, we're going to step back and figure out what to do next, but there will be a 'next,' and it'll probably be in a bigger facility," he said.

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