Nobel scientist assesses biotech needs

June 07, 1991|By Timothy J. Mullaney

Arthur Kornberg talks like a scientist. And the credentials? Only a 1959 Nobel Prize in medicine for work on the use of enzymes to duplicate genetic material in the laboratory, along with a National Medal of Science and (in his words) "about a dozen" honorary degrees.

Dr. Kornberg spent most of the last week roaming the Universitof Maryland Baltimore County campus in Catonsville, giving lectures to students, faculty and civic leaders during a brief visiting professorship sponsored by Du Pont.

Louise White, a UMBC spokeswoman, said that Dr. Kornberg was chosen for the second annual Du Pont Visiting Professorship, which ended this week, because the university has a strong biology program and a strong interest in genetic engineering. His pioneering research made him one of the fathers of gene engineering, she said.

But scientific credentials aside, Dr. Kornberg is a businessman, too, who has served on the boards of three biotechnology companies.

And he made time during his visit to share thoughts on the prospects for the biotechnology industry and the need he sees for continued public funding of scientific research.

The interesting thing is that Dr. Kornberg, straight from California and admittedly not a careful student of the Baltimore-Washington area, has the strengths and weaknesses of the infant area biotech industry sized up more or less the way local civic leaders and groups such as the Greater Baltimore Committee have summed it up in recent reports.

He sees the area's research base as a big advantage, its lack of major, established drug companies as a minus, and the local biotech industry's future as "a gamble worth taking.

"The NIH [National Institutes of Health, based in Bethesda], Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland campuses have a reservoir of talents. Biology has become incredibly entrepreneurial, beyond anything I ever imagined," he said.

"If there's an influx of investment, there's the talent and resources to be galvanized into something that's highly competitive with the Boston area or the [San Francisco] Bay Area."

But that potential won't bear fruit if public funding for basic research dries up, he insisted. "The health of the industry rests entirely on the continued federal support of research," he said.

He dismissed the idea that biotech companies can take over basic research."I think that's absurd," said the Stanford Medical School professor, who is in his early 70's. "Ninety percent of the basic information has come and must continue to come from the zTC federal government."

What the commercial sector is good at doing is taking the advances found in basic research and finding the opportunities to make products based on them, he said. Dr. Kornberg pointed out that it takes more than just good science to build a drug company, the goal of many promising biotech start-ups. It takes money and organization too -- factors that favor existing drug giants and areas such as northern New Jersey, where several big drug companies are located.

"It's the major pharmaceutical companies becoming biotech-oriented that will make it, and a few of these ventures will make it," Dr. Kornberg said. "You bet on the places where the action is going. But I don't think anyone would have bet on Silicon Valley."

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