SEATTLE, Wash.--Bioinform-atics will be considered as "indispensable a tool as the pipette" in the next century, predicted a group of biotechnology pioneers, including two Nobel Prize winners and the president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who spoke during an opening session at BIO '99 International Biotechnology Meeting & Exhibition, held here May 17-24.
"Computing is going to become more and more an integral part of processes," said Kathryn Zoon, director of the Center for Biological Evaluation and Research at the US Food and Drug Administration, during the plenary talk. "Time magazine recently predicted that the 21st century will be the biotech century," Ben Rosen, chairman of Compaq, reminded the audience, sprinkling his speech with references to Compaq's planned bioinformatics center in Massachusetts (see story, page 1). "You could make an equally compelling case that it will be the information technology century," Rosen added.
More than 5,000 company executives, scientists, investment experts, and government officials representing 1,500 companies from 40 nations attended the five-day event. Although not the meeting's main thrust, bioinformatics was clearly an attention-getting topic. Bioinformatics-related seminars, such as a four-hour presentation entitled "The Genomic Information Revolution: Creating New Opportunities for Biotechnology in the 21st Century," drew crowds that filled all 100 seats and then stood three-deep behind them.
Leroy Hood, chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Washington, noted the "enormous explosion" of opportunities for and partnerships between computer scientists and biologists. To help meet mushrooming demand for skilled people, Hood announced an alliance between the University of Washington's new Institute of Quantitative Systems Biology and the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in Claremont, Calif., the first graduate school dedicated to applied life sciences, including biology and computer sciences. Enrollment will begin in August 2000.
"The Future of Genomics/Bioinformatics and Intellectual Property" also drew a crowd. Patent attorney Jane Potter of the Seattle law firm Seed and Barry discussed emerging claim identities on gene sequences, genomics, and bioinformatics analysis and the importance of ensuring adequate protection of investments. "It is vital to implement an IP strategy that not only protects today's gene sequences but also provides for future developments," said Potter.
Bioinformatics even popped up unexpectedly in some sessions. During a panel on industrial enzymes, biodiversity, and extremephiles, Glenn Nedwing of Novo Nordisk Biotech suggested, "Bioinformatics is an important pathway in reaching new applications in the textile industry, forestry, paper, oil, animal feed, and microbial control."
In the exposition room, emerging bioinformatics companies found a wealth of networking opportunities among the 500 exhibitors. "This is an excellent chance to meet high-level executive management," said Base4 Bioinformatics' regional account manager Bruce Windoffer. He added, "It's great exposure for us and key for our products."
While many thought the conference offered more bioinformatics than last year's meeting in New York, there were areas others said needed augmentation. "I'd like to see more sessions on information management, discussions on collaborative efforts with pharmaceutical companies, and low-throughput screening seminars," said Jack Jenuth, Base4's product manager.
"There aren't really a lot of bioinformatics companies represented," added Todd Smith, president of Geospiza, based here. Smith said he counted only three emerging bioinformatics companies with booths at the show. "None of the big guys are here," Smith observed.
During a lunchtime seminar, Compaq's Rosen made special note of the opportunities for bioinformatics vendors in the biotechnology industry. "Most of the software available today comes from academic sources," he said. "The challenge is to find a viable business model for companies that are basically taking academic software and passing it on to the commercial world."
BIO 2000 will be held March 26-30 in Boston. Visit http://www.bio.org in coming months for details.
--Amy E. Nevala