More MS news articles for Feb 2002

Biotechnology unlocks life's secrets

March 2002

There have been many cutting-edge advancements in the biotechnology industry that have made a huge impact on society. In recent years, DNA fingerprinting has considerably improved criminal investigations and forensic medicine; environmental biotechnology products have made it easier to clean up hazardous waste without utilizing corrosive chemicals; and many drugs are being developed to treat various diseases. There are a number of different sectors within the biotech industry that are doing a tremendous amount of research and development and have provided people with incredible opportunities.

Biotech goes hand in hand with pharmaceuticals. However, there is a major difference - biotech companies are more focused on research, as they are still developing products. With that in mind, the biotech industry is stronger than ever. According to investment firm Roberts Stephens, last year biotech firms raised approximately $35 billion in initial public offerings (IPOs), venture capital (VC) and financing. IPOs alone raised $6.1 billion for 61 U.S. firms, while European firms raised $2.2 billion for 27 companies. Four biotech companies were among the top 10 best-performing stocks of the year - OSI Pharmaceuticals, Cell Therapeutics, Impath and Laboratory Corp. of America.

More than 200 million people around the world have been helped by over 90 biotechnology drug products and vaccines approved by the FDA. There are more than 350 biotechnology drug products and vaccines currently in human clinical trials and many more in early development stages, reports the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization. These medicines are designed to treat a variety of cancers, Alzheimer's, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, obesity and other conditions.

Many areas of biotechnology have taken off in the last few years. For example, people are enjoying biotechnology foods such as carrots and tomatoes, as hundreds of biopesticides and other agricultural products are being used to improve the food supply and reduce dependence on conventional chemical pesticides.

Although there are a number of large biotech firms, they are the minority. Biotech giants such as Amgen and Genentech offer many opportunities for professionals, yet approximately one-third of biotech companies employ fewer than 50 workers, and more than two-thirds employ fewer than 135 people, reports the Biotech Industry Organization. "Due to some of the mega-mergers there is money in the pipeline for startups," says Vinay Nayak, an account manager with Parsippany, N.J.-based Aerotek Scientific. Many biotech firms partner with pharmaceutical companies to receive help with funding.

Career options can be found in many different areas in biotech. Beyond the scientific jobs, engineers, computer programmers, sales and marketing professionals, human resources managers, environmentalists and law-enforcement specialists are in high demand. Also, people who not only have the scientific background but the business savvy are being sought out in different areas. "In the past, people in the industry frowned upon this skill set," says William Cline, Ph.D., assistant executive officer with Bethesda, Md.-based American Society for Pharmacologists and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET). "There are a lot more entrepreneurs today."

Due to the growing elderly population and the advancements in technology, the biotech industry will surely have a bright future. The following offers a glimpse into some of the hot areas of this sector: pharmacology, genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics.

Pharmacology is the science of drug action on biological systems. This area of biotech embraces knowledge of the sources, chemical properties, biological effects and therapeutic uses of drugs. It is a science that is utilized not only in medicine, but also in pharmacy, nursing, dentistry and veterinary medicine. Pharmacological studies range from those that determine the effects of chemical agents upon subcellular mechanisms, to those that deal with the potential hazards of pesticides and herbicides. It also focuses on the treatment and prevention of major diseases by drug therapy.

It includes two closely associated areas: pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics, according to the ASPET. Pharmacodynamics is the study of the molecular, biochemical and physiological effects of drugs on cellular systems and their mechanisms of action. Pharmacokinetics deals with the absorption, distribution and excretion of drugs. Pharmacodynamic and pharmacokinetic aspects of action of chemical agents can also be applied to related areas of study, including toxicology and therapeutics.

Most pharmacologists have doctoral degrees. Pharmacologists need to have background knowledge in chemistry, biology, physiology and mathematics. Some go on to become medical doctors because pharmacology and the practice of medicine intertwine. The salary level for pharmacologists is quite high. Depending upon years of experience and place of employment, they can earn anywhere from $60,000 to $72,000 a year. Pharmacologists with supervisory tasks can earn more than $100,000 a year.

There are perks to working in this sector. "Funding is often available without having to apply for a grant," Dr. Cline notes. "They get to work with cutting-edge equipment and many people have the opportunity to work with different companies due to mergers."

As the pharmacology sector evolves, it is becoming more of a business and not just a science. According to Terry Williams, chief executive officer and president of Collegeville, Pa.-based T. Williams Consulting, there is a high demand for people who have the background in science and business management as well. These people not only have the experience of sitting in a lab every day, but strong presentation skills and the ability to form strategic alliances as well. Because of this recent trend, the large number of new chemicals and drugs being developed and the field of gene therapy, the employment outlook for pharmacologists, research scientists and clinical research associates looks fantastic.

Perhaps the most-talked-about aspect of biotechnology is genomics. Simply defined, it is the study of genes and their functions, but anyone who has listened to the news in the past few years knows that there is more to the field than that. The Human Genome Project and the cloning of Dolly the Sheep have resulted in a branch of science that is both glamorized and reviled. These varied and passionate reactions have brought genomics to the forefront of today's headlines. Along with information technology (IT), the field was instrumental in boosting America's economy during the past decade.

Despite the progress that's been made in genomics, the work for researchers in this field is far from over, says Peter Kaplan, principal, healthcare and life science, in the New York office of Ray & Berndtson, a global executive search firm. "Just because we've mapped the genome, that doesn't mean more can't be done," Kaplan shares. Not only is genomics helping people understand the molecular mechanisms of diseases, but it is also stimulating the discovery of breakthrough healthcare products and is offering innovative ways to design new drugs and vaccines. It is these areas of genomics that will continue to see growth. "Pharmaceutical companies are driving the ship," Kaplan explains. "They are moving their business models away from developing big, blockbuster drugs that take several years to develop and cost millions of dollars and affect about half the population. They are moving from a chemical-based model to a genome-based drug model."

One of the most noteworthy offshoots of genomics is DNA molecular diagnostics, otherwise known as genetic testing. This process enables doctors to gather information on an individual's predisposition for a health condition or to confirm a diagnosis of a genetic disease. "It is a very important area and an area that will affect you and me," Kaplan explains. "You can do a DNA test while sitting in the doctor's office. You can get results much quicker."

Although biotechnology firms have not been totally unaffected by today's market, their prospects are still better than average. "The expectation is that there will be more than double an increase in the profitability of biotech companies," Kaplan says. "The promise of genomics is still here. You can do things with it that regular chemical drugs can't do. Once it is proven that it works, stocks for biotech companies will skyrocket."

In the meantime, these firms will have to hope that the general public doesn't get too impatient. Jim Audet, M.D., executive director of Russell Reynolds Associates in San Francisco, says there is a lot of anticipation surrounding genomics. Fulfilling the potential may take longer than people realize. "The biggest unanswered question will be how useful the information will be," Dr. Audet notes. "There has been tremendous hype. There is a huge amount of data, but is it really going to end up producing useful drugs? The common person may think we are going to have a cure for all diseases within the next decade, but it won't work like that."

Skeptics and impatience aside, most experts agree that genomics will continue to be an important field because it is the key to discovering the blueprint of life. Its significance can be seen in the abundance of job opportunities in areas such as research, drug discovery and vaccine production. Specific professionals that are in demand include optical mechanical engineers, biostatisticians, chemists and biologists. "There is a need for people," Kaplan says.


Although genomics may get the lion's share of the attention, the general consensus is that another branch of biotechnology will have an even greater impact on our future. Proteomics is the study of proteins, which make up the cells in our DNA. By studying these organic compounds, scientists hope to open up a whole new world that goes beyond genomics. Proteins are specific for each species and for each organ in each species. Human beings alone have an estimated 30,000 different proteins, and only about 2 percent of those have been adequately described. With a virtually blank canvas like this, it's easy to see why proteomics is considered to be the next big thing in biotechnology.

For many scientists and investors, protein research is the wave of the future. While genomics paved the way, proteomics will carry us down the road to major progress, says David N. Edwards, M.D., Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of Hybrigen in Dallas. "In terms of data, genomics is easy compared to proteomics," Dr. Edwards explains. "Genes are like the blueprint, but proteins are more complicated. The whole point of proteomics is to fulfill the promise of the genomics industry to make products that are useful. Proteomics picks up where genomics left off." Kaplan prefers a football analogy. "DNA is like the quarterback," Kaplan shares. "It sets the instructions for the play. The people who do the actual work in the body are the proteins."

The increased activity in proteomics is translating into more private and public funding in this area. "There are already companies that are basically focused on analyzing all proteins," Dr. Audet shares. According to Jain PharmaBiotech, a consulting service for biotechnology companies, the number of businesses involved in proteomics has jumped during the past few years. It is estimated that there are more than 215 companies doing research in the field. The current value of markets for proteomic technologies is about $2 billion and is expected to increase to $6 billion by 2005 and $10 billion by 2010. The largest single segment is 2-D electrophoresis, which is worth about $600 million.

In biotechnology, genetics is considered the backbone, while proteomics is the up-and-comer. However, bioinformatics ultimately pulls everything together. This field involves the use of computers to solve information problems in life science. The primary function of bioinformatics is to create extensive electronic databases on genomes, protein sequences and other discoveries. It also uses techniques such as the three-dimensional modeling of biomolecules and biologic systems. "Bioinformatics is the convergence of biology and computer information technology," Kaplan says. "It is the ability to take raw, sequential data and find some way to detect patterns in genomes."

The birth of bioinformatics can be traced to the Human Genome Project. Research from the undertaking generated a catalog of about 31,000 human genes and billions of base pairs of DNA-sequence information. Scientists also developed high-resolution maps of the chromosomes, including hundreds of thousands of landmarks. With all of this information coming in, it soon became obvious that not only would researchers need a place to store the data, but they would also need a way to organize and access it. Some of the tools used to address these challenges included laboratory information-management systems, robotics, database-management systems and graphical user interfaces. From the coordination of these activities emerged bioinformatics.

Although bioinformatics found its start in genomics, its reach has begun to spread even further. "It is really broadening itself," Dr. Edwards shares. "It has become more of a subset industry." The growth in the field is offset by the relatively few people who are actually skilled enough to work in it. For that reason, bioinformatics is teeming with employment opportunities. "People who understand bioniformatics are in short supply," Kaplan shares. The dearth of professionals in this field is due mainly to the fact that it is virtually a brand-new discipline. High schools and universities are just now starting to pick up the slack by offering courses specific to bioinformatics. "The skills are generally not taught jointly," Kaplan states. "You either study biology or computers. It's very unusual for someone to have a love of science and a love of computers. Major universities all recognize that it is a very hot area."

Many firms have had a difficult time locating professionals with the right skills. "A lot of companies have to train people themselves," Kaplan says. "There are people who have gravitated to learning both science and computers, but they are few and far between." Dr. Audet agrees that people with bioinformatics know-how are probably the most sought-after individuals in biotechnology today. "There is a huge shortage of these people," he notes. "The good ones can basically name their salaries."

The increased need for bioinformatics professionals marks a shift in the way information technology is used. "Ten or 15 years ago, advancements in computer technology were driven by the defense department," Dr. Audet shares. "Now what's driving it is healthcare. Companies like IBM are paying a lot of attention to healthcare because massive amounts of information will be driven by healthcare companies."

As biotechnology continues to grow in significance, professionals around the world will be rewarded with an upsurge in employment opportunities. In fact, more and more entrepreneurs are turning to this industry, hoping to find the next big market for products and services. Like computer and Internet ventures that came before, biotechnology is drawing in the innovators of our time. According to Venture Economics, during the second quarter of 2001, 14 percent of venture-capital funds went toward medical/health/life science companies as compared to 4 percent a year earlier. On the flip side, Internet startups actually lost ground, declining from a 48-percent share of capital to 28 percent. It seems biotechnology may be just what the economy ordered.

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