This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s (BIO) International Convention, and a key focus of this year’s meeting, held in April in Chicago, was on the top biotech advances. BIO bills the annual meeting as “the global event for biotechnology that brings together industry leaders for networking, partnering, and deal-making.” Nearly 14,000 industry leaders from 47 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and 62 countries were in attendance this year. Reflecting on the meeting, BIO President and CEO Jim Greenwood said, “The 2013 BIO International Convention brought together global leaders from industry, government, and academia who are working together to move innovation forward.” The top-10 largest international delegations included (in order): Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, China, Brazil, Turkey, and Australia. Further, 10 U.S. governors attended this year’s event. 

The BIO Business Forum, held in conjunction with the convention, hosted a record-breaking 25,573 scheduled partnering meetings between 2,800 companies and featured 167 company presentations. The 2013 BIO Alliance Pavilion, which connected patients with advocates and academics in the BIO Exhibition, hosted over 500 partnering meetings, nearly a 100% increase over the Academic Zone from last year. The BIO Exhibition featured more than 1,722 exhibitors and covered 180,000 square feet with 60 state and international pavilions. In its second year, exhibitor partnering hosted 5,400 meetings, a 25% increase over 2012. Finally, the program featured more than 125 breakout sessions across 17 tracks. It also included a key event on the top-10 biotech advances, with the featured speaker being Karin Lucas from Biotech Primer, a company devoted to teaching nonscientists about biotech. I’ve been covering the industry and the BIO convention since its sixth meeting in 1998. Things have truly progressed, and I thought ComputerTalk readers would enjoy hearing about the decade’s advances as outlined by Lucas.

The Top-10 Biotech 

Advance 1: The Regulome

When I first presented on biotech advances a few years ago to the American Society for Automation in Pharmacy’s members, I noted that after the mapping of the human genome was complete in 2002, scientists thought 40% to 50% of the genome was comprised of “junk DNA.” Scientists now know that the 25,000 genes and 3 million base pairs it contains actually consist of two parts: gene segments that code for making proteins, and “intergenic DNA” between those genes. Junk DNA is now known as “intergenic DNA.” Scientists have discovered that 90% of known disease-associated variations occur in the intergenic DNA that regulates gene expression — how genes code and make protein. This is leading to new disease targets and therapeutic interventions. 

Advance 2: DNA Sequencing

Moore’s law of computer circuits states that capacity of circuitry doubles every five years. For biotechnology, gene sequencing advances have occurred eight times faster than that. In 2003, when the Human Genome Project ended, it cost $3 billion and took 14 years to sequence one genome. In 2006, through an incentive-based rewards program, innovations in sequencing led to James Watson being able to have his genome mapped for $10 million in 2 months by 2007. Today, one genome can be mapped in 27 hours for a cost of between $1,000 and $7,000. And more is coming soon. This stellar technological advance means that mapping a person’s individual genome is within the reach of the diagnostic tool kit for many healthcare providers, leading to personalized medicine.

Advance 3: Stratified or Personalized Medicine

Cancer is the first area where we are truly seeing the ability of genetic-based diagnostics to drive therapeutic decisions, causing more efficient treatment with fewer side effects. Decades ago, we thought we were looking for “the cure for cancer.” This thinking has been replaced today with an understanding that cancer is very individual and that personalized treatment plans are the key. We are no longer looking for the cure; rather, we are looking for many cures. Various new compounds come with companion diagnostics to predict biomarkers and response to therapy. If a person does not test for the biomarkers, a different therapy is indicated. This is often referred to as “omics integration.”

Advance 4: Paper Diagnostics

Companies are now developing paper-based diagnostic tools that are embedded with flexible circuitry that will allow genomic testing to be brought to a much wider geographic area for patient diagnosis in rural and under-developed areas; the technology will also be applied to the field of food safety.

Advance 5: Controlling Protein Expression

Intergenic DNA influences how individual genes code and make proteins. Advances in “antisenseRNA” have now led to the possibility of gene therapy “outside the petri dish.” Challenges to getting RNA into the right part of the body for gene therapy to work are being steadily addressed. The first antisenseRNA drug was approved in January to treat familial hypercholesterolemia, a disease that causes extremely high levels of cholesterol and can cause death from atherosclerosis in early to middle adulthood. Therapies for muscular dystrophy and targeted gene therapy technology are in development. 

Advance 6: Stem Cell Therapies

Scientists now understand the difference between adult and fetal stem cells and can characterize them and make advances that use a person’s own stem cells. Therapies are in development and look promising for spinal nerve repair, cardiac repair, ischemic tissue repair, and brain cancer treatment.

Advance 7: Diabetes Management

Saying the “end of the finger prick is near,” speaker Karin Lucas noted the marriage of drugs and devices that are leading to electronic pancreases that combine continuous blood glucose monitoring with automatic insulin pump activity. These devices would be especially welcome for people with “brittle” diabetes (generally juvenile onset, or Type 1 diabetes) where insulin regulation can be challenging. Advances may also lead to stem-cell-derived pancreatic implants that could pave the way for individual implants that avoid chronic immunosuppressant therapy and its attendant complications.

Advance 8: The Bionic Eye

A combination prosthesis, linked wirelessly to a computer that bypasses damaged retinal photoreceptors in the eye, is improving vision for many who are nearly legally blind. A miniature camera is embedded in the person’s glasses and receives signals wirelessly from a small computer worn on the body. While the system isn’t perfect, the wearer can usually detect shadows and objects, which allows for increased mobility

Advance 9: Vaccines

Asking the speculative question “Grandma, what was it like to live when there was the flu?” Lucas noted innovations in vaccine development that will change how influenza and other vaccines are made, reducing production time, removing antigenic elements, helping pandemic response, and leading to a “universal flu vaccine” that would only need to be given every five to 10 years. Advances hold promise for HIV transmission prophylaxis as well.

Advance 10: Biofuels

Continuing innovation with algae-based versus corn-based production of biofuels will lead to further efficiencies in producing biodiesel and ethanol-based gasoline fuels. Cutting down on the use of petroleum will lower greenhouse gases, slow climate change, and help the environment.

I’m excited that the advances continue and that BIO is the place where people are “working together to move innovation forward.” The 2014 BIO International Convention will take place June 23 to 26 at the San Diego Convention Center. I plan to attend and to update ComputerTalk readers next year about new trends and advances in biotechnology. CT

Marsha K. Millonig, R.Ph., M.B.A.,
is president of Catalyst Enterprises, LLC, located in Eagan, Minn. The firm provides consulting, research, and writing services to help industry players provide services more efficiently and implement new services for future growth. The author can be reached at