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Men in Banker s Black Try to Shake 02 Gloom

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 10 - Once again men in dark suits lined the hotel hallways at the annual JPMorgan Healthcare Conference here, but this year there was a pall over the conference that gave them the appearance of undertakers rather than businessmen.

 

Attendance at the conference, which ended yesterday, followed the downward trajectory of the markets, dropping almost 20 percent to 5,000 investors from last year's 6,000. There were also fewer companies in attendance hawking their grand plans for the future: 260 showed up this year compared to 300 in 2002, according to a JPMorgan spokesperson.

 

It's "much easier to get around the halls these days," JPMorgan research analyst Corey Davis joked in his opening remarks before an investment panel discussion.

 

And if things were tough for biotech, they may have been even tougher for genomics companies in particular. Many investors observed that products, especially drugs, were paramount, and technology still in the research phase was just too far away from profits to make an attractive investment.

 

Even the genomics companies that did show up, such as Incyte and Celera Genomics, explicitly distanced themselves from their roots during their presentations, stressing instead their drug-development designs.

 

But there may be at least two silver linings. For investors, there is the prospect of fire sales. "Things are cheap; there are bargains out there," said Vivek Jain, co-head of health-care investment banking at JPMorgan. "Investors are starting to sniff again."

 

And genomics may just be going through growing pains, passing through an unsightly adolescence on its way to something much bigger, posited David Kessler, dean of the Yale University School of Medicine and former FDA commissioner.

 

Kessler, in a keynote speech, predicted that genomics will lead medicine into the future and that it will "perhaps be the greatest change in how clinical trials are done." And "the [FDA] agency will have to move into the genomic world," he admonished. People in the FDA "need to be hands on with the technology" to be good at it.