Utah and the West are well-positioned to ride the crest of a wave into what some are calling the Biotech Century.
The eight-state region of the West is home to more biotech companies, including more than 200 firms and leading research centers in Utah, than any other region in the world. Behind biotech behemoth California, Utah is ranked behind Colorado and Washington for numbers of workers employed by biotech firms. But Utah's numbers have grown by 25 percent since 1995.Biotech companies will change how the world fights disease, grows crops and cleans the environment. Utah's biotech researchers and firms are leading the way in developing genetic mapping that can help in the prediction of cancer and other diseases, innovative drug delivery systems, new medical devices and designer drugs.
However, public policy decisions could stop Western states from reaping the benefits of a global technology boom, according to a report released by the Denver-based Center for the New West this past week.
"The West could be the center of biotechnology in the biotech century," said Frederick Bolin, Center for the New West's director of special projects and report author.
Thousands of smaller biotech firms and laboratories in California, Colorado, Utah, Washington and other Western states employ tens of thousands of highly paid workers in jobs ranging from the development of cancer vaccines and non-intrusive medical devices to genetic research and insect-resistant agricultural products.
The report points to genetic privacy laws, introduced in many state legislatures, including Utah's, and the snail's-pace FDA drug approval process as potential threats to a rosy biotech future. For example, last week, Carl Volpe, chairman of the genetic technical advisory group for the Health Insurance Association of America, told Utah lawmakers that state legislatures can have a huge impact on the future of genetics.
He cautioned them about the "unintended consequences" of genetic privacy legislation. One of those is the impact such legislation would have on the biotech industry, Volpe said. The Center for New West report said that well-meaning but poorly written legislation could threaten important cancer research.
Volpe, who is vice president of WellPoint Health Networks in Los Angeles, said genetics is an emotional and complicated issue. He told the state's Health and Human Services Interim Committee that there is a federal law and 30 states have a prohibition on certain uses of genetic information by insurance companies.
Moreover, slow approval of new medicines by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration often encourages U.S. companies to introduce promising new drugs in Europe where they are not available to Americans. A flood of new regulations could threaten the West's global lead in biotechnology, according to Bolin's report.
In Utah, the biotech industry is driven by research at the University of Utah, University of Utah Medical Center, Brigham Young University, Primary Children's Medical Center, Huntsman Cancer Research Institute and Howard Hughes Institute.
Something that sets Utah apart is genetic-based research undertaken here. It is a driver for biotech in our area, said Dinesh Patel, CEO of Salt Lake-based Theratech.
Utah, home of the LDS Church with its interest in family history, has helped scientists discover the source of genetic diseases using genealogical data. For example, Jean-Mark Lalouel of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, assisted by scientists from France, Germany and Japan, identified a mutation causing a rare form of hypertension in a study of siblings in Utah and France.
There are two primary reasons the West is a global leader in biotechnology: an abundant supply of venture capital in the region, especially in California, and unmatched clusters of research facilities, stretching like a chain from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to the National Center for Genome Research in Santa Fe, N.M.
"In the Western U.S., important biotech clusters have formed in areas that enjoy a special synergy of brains, bucks and entrepreneurship. The West is likely to anchor the biotech century and biotech will have a major and very positive impact in the West," said Philip Burgess, president of the Center for the New West.
For many smaller Western states, participation in a biotech future will depend on creating a "critical mass" of people involved in education, research and attracting venture capital.
Bolin believes that Utah is ahead of many Western states in the biotech game. At the same time, Patel said the state has not yet arrived in creating a critical mass of companies and employees ready for the biotech workplace.
"That will come in the next three to five years," Patel said. When it comes to venture capital, Utah biotech companies still have obstacles. Patel laments that Utah companies usually have to convince fund managers and venture capitalists to stop in on their way to biotech centers in California or Boston.
As baby boomers grow older, the focus of the biotech century will be drugs that lessen the impact of the aging process, said Bolin. As the popularity of the impotence drug Viagra has shown, there is a huge market for such drugs.
Already, Utah-based Theratech markets skin patches containing testosterone to help counter the effects of hypogonadism, a syndrome in which the body produces insufficient amounts of the male hormone and which is often associated with aging. The patches can help counter impotence, decreased libido, fatigue and depression.
The company has entered an agreement with pharmaceutical maker Palatin Technologies to investigate treatment of sexual dysfunction in men, particularly those with psychological problems.
The company also markets similar patches containing estrogen for menopausal women.
Next door to Theratech in the University of Utah Research Park, NPS Pharmaceuticals is trying to develop new medications based on research involving venom from spiders and centipedes. Based on the early spider venom research, NPS has been able to develop "neoroprotectants" to fight the spread of brain-cell death following a stroke.
NPS scientists are targeting molecules that show promise in helping neurological disorders such as chronic pain, anxiety, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. The company has also entered partnerships to develop pesticides based on spider toxins.