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Annual biotechnology conference opens in Toronto

Annual biotechnology conference opens in Toronto
TORONTO - The world\'s biggest annual biotechnology conference opened in Toronto yesterday, providing a forum for boosters as well as detractors of an industry where stock prices have been hammered by regulatory setbacks.
\"Nine years ago - the last time we had the conference in Toronto - there were about 2,000 attendees and a dozen biotech drugs, now we are expecting at least 12,000 or 13,000 people and there are 130 drugs and vaccines on the market,\" Dan Eramian, a spokesman for the biotech trade group, said. The sector, however, has had a tough year in terms of financial performance. The American Stock Exchange biotech index closed last week at 361.90, a 44-percent drop from where it stood 12 months earlier. \"The industry is doing great, but the stock prices are terrible. A number of smaller companies are selling at less than cash and some of the bigger ones are selling at about cash value,\" said Jim McCamant, an analyst at Moors & Cabot Inc. and editor of Medical Technology Stock Letter. He cited investor aversion to volatile equity market sectors in the wake of the dot-com collapse as well as a series of regulatory setbacks for the dismal showing. This year, more than 12,000 representatives from the fields of health care, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology are expected to attend the convention. \"The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) is a real problem. There will be talk at BIO about that,\" McCamant said, referring to widespread perceptions that the Bush administration\'s failure to appoint an FDA commissioner has stymied the decision-making process at the regulatory agency. The conference will feature several symposiums, including a Monday morning session addressing ways to smooth the FDA drug approval process. Topics such as when a company should give up on an experimental drug and whether drug development costs are justified will be the focus of other panel discussions. BIO will also make the effort to address some of its recent controversies. Yesterday, Dr. Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace Canada, will discuss the \"misinformation used by activists\" that \"plays on the fear of the unknown and fear of change.\" On Tuesday, a bioethics panel will explore religious perspectives on biotechnology, including the controversy over whether stem cells derived from human embryos should be used in medical research. \"When you have the introduction of any new technology people ask questions, and people have the right to protest,\" Eramian said. \"But in the long run, science shows that the alarmists are wrong.\" Last year\'s conference, held in San Diego, was targeted by protesters opposed to so-called \"Frankenfoods,\" but their ranks fell short of forecasts and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) event was also able to draw attention to the promise of genetically engineering foods to fight malnutrition and limit environmental degradation by easing pesticide use. Story by Deena Beasley REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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