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Sniper Fears Rattle Maryland s Biotech Belt, But Genomics Stays On Track

NEW YORK, Oct. 18 - Montgomery County is on a knife's edge. As a sniper prowls the affluent suburban counties around Washington, DC, locals have adopted a new, anxious way of life: looking over their shoulders at the gas pump, fretting about their school-age children, compulsively scanning Internet news sites.


This territory, where a gunman has randomly killed nine since Oct. 2, is also prime biotech country.


Although the story is now national obsession with near-constant media attention, fears of sniper attack haven't interfered with life in the lab, genomics professionals report in interviews with a GenomeWeb reporter.


"It's a preoccupation," admits Matt Gardner, director of the Bioscience Alliance at the Tech Council of Maryland, a high-tech state umbrella organization. "But I don't get the sense that the water cooler conversation is any different here than it is anywhere else."


Next week, the Tech Council will host its annual Maryland BioForum Conference in Greenbelt, Md., only seven miles from the spot where a 13-year-old was shot on Oct. 7. Will fear drive down attendance? "Naturally, we are concerned about it," Gardner said. "But we're on track for registration, numbering in the hundreds. We should be OK."


"Everybody's talking about it, and to a certain extent its getting in the way of personal life," agreed Aptus Pharmaceuticals' Dan Perrino, adding that the worries have not interfered with business. "I think people are just dealing with it." Aptus, a genomics tool and drug-discovery company, is in Gaithersburg, about a dozen miles from the highway corridor that has seen most of the sniper shootings.


Celera Genomics, for its part, has instituted e-mail alerts to keep employees up to date on closures or lockdowns in local schools and roads, said spokeswoman Jamie Lacey. The company has also brought in a psychologist to lead a group workshop on reducing stress and anxiety.


But perhaps a sniper looking to panic a populace will have a tougher time among the rational minds of genomics, where probability and odds can provide a little reassurance. "People are obviously concerned, but those I've talked to don't seem to be particularly put off," said Leigh Anderson, the former Large Scale Biology chief scientific officer who is now heading up the Plasma Proteome Institute in Washington, DC.


"You keep your eyes open, and you watch white vans roaming around, but it is so statistical," he said. "Risk is a familiar concept in the research community."

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