12 Apr Clinton says world needs biofuels, GM crops, and more answers
Chicago — The biotechnology industry has a job to do, former president Bill Clinton said on Tuesday at a luncheon attended by thousands at the BIO Chicago conference.
He called on the industry to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, guard against pandemics, create crops that can feed more of the world’s hungry, tap sources of renewable energy such as ethanol, and confront global warming head on.
Clinton’s vision of a future without the solutions that biotechnology could bring was bleak. He painted a picture of fertile land turning to dust bowls, islands sinking in a rising ocean, more people left hungry, and children living shorter lives than their parents.
Two primary themes of his talk were the interdependence of the world today and unsolved problems that biotechnology is uniquely suited to face. But he drew the most applause for his repeated assertions that scientific evidence should rule debates over issues such as genetically modified crops and global warming. “We have to take the facts as we find them,” he said, going on to affirm his support of genetic engineering and say that it’s consistent with support of organic, healthy foods.
Without looking at notes, Clinton rolled out statistics on world hunger and the industrialized world’s problems with obesity and type-II diabetes – formerly known as adult-onset diabetes, he emphasized, but now affecting more and more children.
Clinton said we need a replacement for high fructose corn syrup, an alternative to beet or cane sugar and an ingredient in many processed foods and soda. Though its production is beneficial to farmers, he said it bears responsibility for increasing obesity rates in children because it metabolizes into fat more easily than other sugars. But a creative application of biotechnology could find a way to make a healthier replacement out of corn.
And the need for biofuels, he said, is clear. Take the gulf coast. With all the wood waste left over from hurricane Katrina, Clinton said, enough biofuel could have been produced to power all the shrimp boats in the gulf, if only the infrastructure were in place.
Clinton now works in the non-profit sector through the William J. Clinton Foundation.
• BIO has released a full transcript of Clinton’s speech. Click here to read it.
How HHS can help
Michael Leavitt said some things that raised both hopes and eyebrows in the crowd at BIO. The federal Health and Human Services secretary spoke Tuesday morning on the importance of personalized medicine and making it easier to bring new drugs and biotech innovations to market.
For one thing, he would like to see FDA trials, now a laborious process that can take 12 years and push the cost of new drug development past a billion dollars, turn into a “six-month sprint” through early stages to clinical trials.
That would take new technologies and processes that can efficiently screen out unworkable drugs – hopefully before they even enter trials, through predictive methods. But when or how that will be accomplished is the question, and though private companies can develop better tests, screens and computer models, it’s largely up to the federal government to decide how much assurance is needed that drugs are safe and effective, especially in the wake of recalls such as the Vioxx case.
“I am committed to using the resources of the Department of Health and Human Services to serve as a rallying point for this patient-centred medicine,” Leavitt said. “For the next 1,000 days it will be the focus of my work. We have to re-invent the regulatory process.”
Leavitt also predicted the ongoing rise of health information firms, who will aggregate personal health information and sell it to biotech firms looking for patterns. Those patterns might include associations between genetic conditions or anything else a firm could use to target compounds toward particular patient communities.
The key issue there is, no surprise, privacy, on which Leavitt spoke at length. “If we are not fully confident of the security of our data,” he said, “people are not going to participate. It’s as simple as that.”
But he said this is a critical part of better personalized medicine that could reach people with conditions that are not treated by blockbuster drugs for widespread problems.
“Millions of people continue to suffer because it is not financially feasible to pursue a cure to their rare disease,” he said.