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by Cynthia Robbins-Roth, Ph.D.

BioWorld Today

As The BioWorld Turns: From White Biotech To Stem Cell Fun

By Cynthia Robbins-Roth
BioWorld Today Columnist

The 100+ temperatures boiling the Bay Area out here in Biotech West put me in the mood to stroll through my file of accumulated biotech news. Summer has brought out some entertaining stories, which I share with you below.
  • In one of the more entertaining applications of the “if it says -omics, it's got to be good” rules, Sloning Biotechnology in Puchheim, Germany, announced the launching of “Slonomics” as a way to produce synthetic genes. The company said that Slonomics will support important contributions to “white biotechnology.” We are hoping they meant "green biotech.” Sloning plans to emphasize “not only the competitive advantages, but also the enabling potential” of Slonomics. Perhaps they used our buzzword generator to write the press release.

  • Not wanting to be left out of the high-price drug sweepstakes, Shire plc announced its plans to sell newly-FDA approved Elaprase (injectable enzyme replacement for a very rare disease, Hunter's syndrome) for $300,000 for a year's treatment. Take that, Genzyme!

  • Ever alert for novel business models, one of BioWorld's wily reporters wrote recently about the transformation of Medisys plc into MDY Healthcare plc. Apparently tired of trying to extract funds from investors, Medisys decided to become one! It sold off its diagnostics business, raised $8.6 million and brought in a former Nomura finance guy to be CEO. If you can't beat them, join them.

  • The outside world sees scientists as dry, boring, objective, data-driven drones. Recent press coverage and popular fiction are showing a very different side.

  • Chi Yang and his California biotech company, SynPep Corp., were accused of 13 counts of mail fraud. They are accused of shipping “bogus research material” consisting of impure peptides to corporate, academic and NIH customers. Clearly, they were thinking too small. Peptides can't generate nearly the market opportunity provided by genetically engineered yeast tweaked to produce interferon - it's a health food, it's a cold-buster!

  • Biotech gossipers have been talking about CEOs lured into the dark world of venture capital. Again, thinking too small. Paul Drayson, founder of Powderject Pharmaceuticals, is now in charge of military procurement for the British government. Official title: Lord Drayson, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and Minister for Defence Procurement and Government Spokesman for Defence to the House of Lords. Powderject, a vaccine company, was acquired by Chiron Corp. in 2003 and was probably the source of the fateful former Medivir flu vaccine plant that gave Chiron conniptions.

  • Drayson was described in The Guardian in 2004 as “the biotechnology entrepreneur who gave the Labour party ?0,000 while successfully bidding for a lucrative government vaccine contract and also gave it another ?0,000 within six weeks of being made a life peer.” And here we were worrying about BIO's lobbying!

  • According to, “Disgraced Korean scientist [Woo-Suk Hwang] denied Tuesday that he had spent research funds for personal use and said part of the money was used in failed attempts to clone mammoths, extinct relatives of today's elephants.” “We tried three times, but failed all those times,” he said, adding his team also had tried to clone tigers. O.K., as long as the funds were used for useful purposes.

  • The real-life soap operas are leading to enough works of fiction to fuel an entire website. Check out for a great science-based literary magazine - including “The A-maize-ing Maize Man,” episode seven of “Blinded by Science,” and a great list of movies, books, plays and TV shows that get the science and the scientists right.

  • Fellow scientist Dirk Wyle has created a great mystery series that includes “Biotechnology is Murder” and “Pharmacology is Murder.” Science and suspense fill the pages. James Calder is the author of a series of crime stories about genetic engineering and the human future, set in the San Francisco Bay area.

  • Finally, check out “Intuition” by Allegra Goodman, which charts the events in a cancer research lab when a post-doc makes an amazing discovery, only to be apparently sabotaged by a jealous ex-girlfriend co-worker. The controversy goes all the way to the governmental oversight committee in Washington, proving once again that sex and science don't mix (or at least, not very well).

  • Stem cell scientists found themselves under fire from the Catholic Church and the White House this summer. Vatican Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo called for all those participating in the work to be excommunicated for participating in the equivalent of abortion. Strangely enough, the Vatican has not yet called for those in the in vitro fertilization field (where “spare” embryos are destroyed on a regular basis) to be banned from the church.

  • The Guardian reported that Advanced Cell Therapeutics Ltd. is planning to circumvent the Irish ban on stem cell treatments by moving their operation onto the overnight Cork-to-Swansea ferry, thus entering international waters just long enough for the procedure. The ferry is billed as “fully handicap accessible and has an array of entertainment on board.”

  • Meanwhile, the Bush White House has disavowed a recent statement by its press spokesman calling embryonic stem cell research tantamount to murder. Press secretary Tony Snow said he “overstated the president's position” with the terminology. President George W. Bush did say in the stem cell veto ceremony that the legislation backing the research would support “the taking of innocent human life.”

  • Stem cell researchers must have been fairly surprised to hear their work described as murder or even the theoretically milder “taking of innocent human life.” We could discuss why Bush is O.K. with murdering folks in other countries, but that would break the big rule: never discuss politics, religion, or sex (and stem cells invoke all three).

-- July 31, 2006

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by Cynthia Robbins-Roth, Ph.D.

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