Biotechnology a leap to the Future

Issue 2576 of New Scientist magazineREWARDING careers have been available in British biotech since its early days, though until recently the average life expectancy of a start-up has been short. Now the sector is at last beginning to look more healthy and stable, which is good news for smart people who want to work in biotech but who can do without the roller-coaster ride of excitement and disappointment of the pioneering days.

Four key measures are used to diagnose the health of this young industry. The first is the amount of money investors are willing to put in. Here the news is mixed, but overall things are looking up. While the European biotech industry still lags some way behind its American competitors, it is in significantly better shape than it was, with ¬1.4 billion invested in Europe - a 20 per cent increase on the previous year.

Five years ago, fuelled in large part by the hype surrounding the first draft of the human genome, investors piled in and created a mini-boom. It didn't last: the science was overhyped and overvalued. When the bubble burst, stock-market valuations of biotechs crashed and investors pulled out en masse, leaving companies gasping for air and scientists out of a job.

Today, investor confidence has returned after the industry cut costs, wised up to commercial demands and focused on projects where success comes more quickly, according to William Powlett-Smith of consultancy Ernst & Young. Companies with compelling technology and good management now have a good chance of coming out of the dragon's den with what they wanted, and even of prospering.

The second measure of health is the number of companies floating on the stock market. Flotation has proven difficult for companies over the past two years. Some have taken the leap in Europe but at lower values than they were worth, especially compared with similar American companies floating on similar exchanges. Many have backed away altogether, but resourceful companies have looked elsewhere to grow: after all, why float when you can form a multimillion alliance, or simply get bought out?

Accordingly, the third measure of health is the number of acquisitions and partnerships. And here, British biotech is receiving unprecedented interest, especially from the major pharmaceutical companies. In 2005, the UK had the largest share of such deals in Europe, according to consultancy Ernst & Young. One of the main drivers is that large pharmaceutical companies have struggled to fill their drugs pipelines with chemistry-based compounds from their own research labs, and have had to turn to biotech for ideas. It's a marriage of convenience: big pharma gets its pipeline, while biotech gets money, support and access to drug development experience (New Scientist, 8 April, p 58).

The fourth and most important measure of success for the biotech industry is whether it is getting drugs into the hands of doctors. While the news is generally good, says Simon Best, chairman of the UK Bioindustry Association, there have been setbacks. You need look no further than the disastrous clinical trial conducted by German company TeGenero in March, in which volunteers given the monoclonal antibody-based compound TGN1412 suffered severe side effects. All survived but fears for their long-term health remain. Unsurprisingly, confidence in such drugs has been badly shaken.

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