This is the third day of our coverage of the 2010 BIO International Convention, a massive biotechnology conference being held this week at McCormick Place in Chicago. Come back all day for reports from panels, lectures, and the exhibit floor on how scientists, government leaders, and industry hope to use the combined forces of science and technology to tackle some of the world biggest problems. For the first two days of our coverage, click here and here.
Walking through the elaborate castles erected by countries from Europe, Asia, and South America on the exhibit floor (pictured below), an American might develop some anxiety about their country’s status as undisputed champion of biotechnology. That’s partially an illusion – if all of the kiosks for individual American states and U.S.-based biotech companies were pooled into one giant USA! USA! booth, it would take up the majority of the exhibition. But paranoia that the rest of the world is hot on America’s trail was palpable through the conference, with rumblings of new biotech epicenters in China and India rippling through McCormick Place.
A panel organized by Scientific American this afternoon sought to set some of those fears at bay, and the message was delivered through a persuasive moderator: CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. With his keynote address, Zakaria talked about the economic landscape as the world recovers from a global financial crisis, but said that the real economic story of the last 50 years was not bubbles and recessions, but the broader participation in the world economy. No longer is all the exciting innovation and economic development happening in a few North Atlantic nations, Zakaria said; now even small countries have robust, independent economies and an impact on the global system.
The downside of that phenomenon, for Americans at least, is that we are no longer the one place where the world’s biggest achievements are located. The biggest mall in the world, Zakaria pointed out, is no longer Minneapolis’ Mall of America – it’s the South China Mall in Beijing. The richest man in the world lives in Mexico City. The world’s largest refinery is in India. But the United States can still lay claim to the most highly-respected universities in the world, and the “extraordinary quantity of high quality research” that goes along with that system.
Joined by a panel of biotechnology industry leaders, the reassurance continued. China and India – while several orders of magnitude larger in population than the United States – are too concerned with building infrastructure to pose a near-term threat to American biotech expertise. The American investment system, which rewards creativity and understands that many big ideas fail, remains a model for the world. And as long as United States universities are perceived as the world’s best, they will attract the best students from around the globe to our shores – even if, increasingly, those students return to their home countries to apply their education.
With all those warm feelings, it was a little disheartening to find what I thought would be one of the day’s most engaging research sessions – on applications of computational science to drug discovery – to be also the day’s most sparsely attended. Fascinating, exciting research was presented by scientists from the University of Illinois and Argonne National Laboratory on how the rapid growth of computing power capabilities has made new types of experiments possible.
Emad Tajkhorshid showed animations representing the dynamic wobble of protein interactions, drugs and targets undulating like ocean waves – suggesting that scientists will no longer be constrained by the necessary simplifications of benchtop science. Rick Stevens, from Argonne, talked about grabbing a small soil sample and sequencing every organism within, grabbing potentially thousands of complete genomes – many of them never before seen – at once. As one questioner said, we’ve brought everyone into the genomic age, but the next step will be the petabyte age, an age of previously unfathomable computation enabling the creation of new science. Unfortunately, this afternoon there were few there to witness the new age’s early steps.
A diabetic’s glucose levels over the course of 24 hours can look like the most majestic mountain range, with tall, jagged peaks and deep valleys. That’s a big problem; to minimize complications, controlling those glucose fluctuations into a tighter range – demolishing that mountain range is necessary. Currently, diabetics have a variety of options for doing just that, from low-tech solutions such as finger-prick tests and insulin injections to fancier glucose monitors and insulin pumps. But even the latest devices for glucose control are less than ideal – slow sampling rates can miss fast spikes or troughs of glucose levels, human action is still necessary to read a monitor and trigger an injection, and the devices, though currently as small as an iPod, still become a nuisance when worn all day.
The theoretical answer is what scientists call an artificial pancreas, a device that’s much less organ-like than it sounds. Essentially, an artificial pancreas would unite the glucose monitor and the insulin pump in one device, and coordinate the two functions such that changes in glucose levels automatically trigger the right injection of insulin at the right time. There are mechanical hurdles to creating such a device, but the main problem is one of mathematics – finding the right algorithm that allows glucose levels to be controlled with over-correcting into hyper and hypoglycemia. That’s no easy task, as scientists at an afternoon session explained: even a single patient can exhibit wildly different glucose patterns from day to day, and insulin is relatively slow to work.
But with those caveats in mind, the news from the session was promising. Bruce Buckingham from Stanford and Roman Hovorka from Cambridge both described successful, albeit small, trials that united already-existing devices with complex calculations to narrow the range of glucose fluctuations during sleep, when dangerous hypoglycemia incidents can occur (the worst resulting in “dead in bed” syndrome, which is as bad as it sounds). For now, their setup required a bedside device the size of a small alarm clock, but Buckingham hoped that someday the technology could be integrated into a diabetic patient’s iPhone.
Even cooler were the trials described by Boris Koratchev from the University of Virginia, whose laboratory developed a new animal-free way of testing an artificial pancreas algorithm. Simulating the metabolism of humans in silico with 26 parameters and several lengthy, complex mathematical equations, Koratchev’s group could simulate several thousand experiments to test out their method of controlling glucose. Importantly, they also managed to convince the FDA that such trials were an appropriate replacement for animal trials, speeding up the research process by years, Koratchev said. Information learned from that in silico trial was later applied to a small human trial with success, suggesting promise for both diabetics and those looking for science that moves beyond animal trials.
It’s hard to think of a more ironic way to spend the lunch hour than talking about world hunger, but that’s was the topic on the menu for Wednesday’s press luncheon. Entitled “When Politics Impedes Progress to Combat Hunger,” the panel actually turned into a wider discussion between the journalists and scientists at the podium and the journalists and scientists scarfing down turkey sandwiches about the communication gap that has lingered over the entire conference. Not a session has gone by, in my observation, without at least one mention of how biotechnology scientists and companies need to do a better job of communicating the benefits of their products or discoveries to the public, and the lunch meeting was a chance to analyze why that conversation has broken down.
The effects of poor communication are especially felt in the field of genetically modified agriculture, where resistance to products such as pesticide-resistant plants and high-yield seeds has been strong in the United States and Europe. Michael Specter, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and author of the book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, chalked that resistance up to one word: elitism. It’s fine for people in Berkeley and Oak Park to worry about what kind of cattle their eating, Specter said, but it’s a luxury that few countries can afford.
“Everybody who buys food from a farmer’s market in this country should go spend some time in India,” Specter said. Later, he added, “There are reasons to buy organic foods, but it shouldn’t be a religion.
That sentiment was echoed by panelists Channapatna S. Prakash of Tuskegee University and Margaret Zeigler of the Congressional Hunger Center, who said they had seen the real benefits of genetically-modified crops in developing countries such as India and Guatemala. Parkash said genetically-modified crops have reduced pesticide use in India by 800 million pounds while increasing food productivity. Zeigler said that the small-scale farmers she’s spoken to in poor Latin American countries are eager to use genetically-modified organisms on their own farms.
“If you’re growing food, whatever makes it easier is a good thing,” Zeigler said.
But in the United States and Europe, the debate has broken down to an argument between organic farming and the application of modern technology to agriculture – a false dichotomy, said UC-Davis food scientist Pam Ronald. Many consumers have a false image of the purity of the modern organic farm, Ronald said, and fail to recognize that a better goal would be sustainable agriculture, rather than impossible standards of natural practices. Centuries of “conventional breeding” has already made most agricultural crops vastly different from their natural counterparts.
“Virtually nobody eats anything harvested from the wild and grown on a farm; there’s virtually nothing that we eat that exists in the wild,” said Ronald, the author of the book Tomorrow’s Table. “We need to move beyond saying ‘organic is better’ and judge food by the criteria of sustainability.”
12:oo PM – Biotechnology EPCOT
Either the late-morning session options were a little dry or I’m just a bit burnt out, so it seemed like a good time to take another whirl through the surreal indoor city of the exhibit floor. This time through, it occurred to me that the exhibition is not unlike EPCOT, with dozens of kiosks and complex multi-part structures representing individual countries and drug and biotech companies standing in for Future World. All it was missing was a giant golf ball in the middle – someone should get to work on that for next year. Here’s a quick sample – I’ll post more pictures tomorrow.
The vast majority of the BIO conference focuses, of course, on the promise of biotechnology to improve the world. But the same technology used to produce more food or cure disease can also be exploited for nefarious means in the form of a biological weapon. For that reason, the third day of the conference features a day-long discussion of biosecurity, the policies and tools needed to prevent the misuse of biotechnology by those who seek to do harm and cause panic.
One could assess just how seriously the current administration takes this threat by the heavy-hitters present on the session’s opening panel, with top representatives (all women, interestingly enough) from the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, the Food & Drug Administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services. All four speakers stressed the importance of preparedness and had the documents to prove it; I picked up a copy of the National Security Council’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats. But the ironic message of the panel was that as biotechnology becomes more successful and spreads around the globe, so too do the tools for creating a biological weapon become more accessible and affordable.
“The proliferation of technology is unstoppable,” said Tara O’Toole, undersecretary for science and technology for the Department of Homeland Security. “The big question is will the pace and extent of biotechnology proliferation and the potential for this technology to be used for malignant purposes outrun our capacity to defend against biothreats.”
To underscore the importance of this point, O’Toole said she often asks rooms of scientists whether they themselves would have the ability to create a biological weapon that could kill thousands of people. The result, as it was this morning, was an awkward, poignant silence.
Interestingly, a couple of the speakers pointed to last year’s H1N1 epidemic as a trial run for formulating a response to a biothreat. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the DHHS, said that the action of federal and local governments during the H1N1 outbreak showed both the strengths and weaknesses of current plans in place – perhaps heavier on the weaknesses side, depending on your perspective. Lurie worried that roughly half of the U.S. population was skeptical about the safety of the H1N1 vaccines despite extensive testing by the FDA before approval, and said that communication would be the key in case a more deadly virus spread either naturally or due to terrorism. Another case study for biothreat response: the Icelandic volcano’s disruption of international flights, a trial balloon for what it might look like if the U.S. or another country were forced to close its borders due to a global outbreak.