Mr. Biotech Pushes Cause

Former GOP congressman aims to lift restrictions on stem-cell research

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MINNEAPOLIS -- When asked how many frequent-flier miles he's accumulated in the past eight months, James C. Greenwood lets off a long sigh and grins.

"A lot," he says.

As president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), Greenwood has set ambitious goals to advance biotech scientifically, legislatively and financially.

"I want us to be a world-class advocacy organization," he told several hundred attendees of BIO's Mid-America Venture Forum last month in Minneapolis.

"Biotech is now and in the future the most transformational human endeavor ever, [one] that can reduce human suffering, prevent premature death and feed exploding world populations."

But what exactly is biotech? Greenwood, a congressman from Pennsylvania from 1993 through 2004, acknowledged that the industry has a bit of a public perception problem, probably because it encompasses health care, agriculture, industry and the environment.

Greenwood, a moderate Republican, is mindful that critics of biotech, including those opposed to genetically modified crops, have been adept at grabbing headlines.

"If people from Greenpeace put on some hazmat suits in a field in Iowa for a protest, then of course the paper will take a picture," he said. "It's not as exciting to feature someone in a lab coat working on a cure for cancer."

The use of embryonic stem cells in medical research is a hotly debated issue that affects many biotech companies. Greenwood predicts that stem-cell research, which is opposed by anti-abortion groups, will be a significant issue in the next presidential election.

He believes the majority of Congress is in favor of embryonic stem-cell research. Greenwood was particularly heartened when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced last summer that he would support legislation to lift President Bush's restrictions on federally financed embryonic stem-cell research.

In recent years, states have increased financial incentives to lure biotech companies, an effort that some see as a kind of no-win economic arms race.

But Greenwood thinks the state-versus-state competition is "healthy ... there's an infinite amount of work to be done. It's not like they're competing for factories making a certain number of cars - there's no limit to this technology."

Greenwood also is involved in finding government financing for fledgling biotechs. One issue involves changing how the Small Business Administration determines who qualifies for its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, a key financing tool for many emerging biotech firms.

Companies that are 51 percent owned by venture capital firms are not eligible for SBIR grants. Most biotech firms rely on these grants to finance pre-clinical and clinical trials of their products.

Greenwood also is concerned that reaction to the Vioxx controversy might slow down the approval process for new biotech products at the Food and Drug Administration.

The painkiller was pulled from the market last year by drugmaker Merck & Co. after a study found it caused an increased risk of heart attacks.

A slowdown at the federal regulatory agency "would be a tragic setback for human health in this country," he said.

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