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Touring CA Biotech Companies with Governor Howard Dean, MD

January 8, 2010
Last summer, BIO joined with former Vermont Governor Howard Dean to advocate for biosimilar legislation that protects patient safety and promotes necessary incentives for continued innovation of biologics. The Governor, a trained physician, is a passionate supporter of the value of biotech products in treating disease and reducing healthcare costs.

To further familiarize him with the diversity of our member companies, I accompanied Governor Dean for a two-day tour of California biotech companies earlier this week.

We began our excursion Tuesday morning in the San Diego biotech hub accompanied by BIOCOM President & CEO Joe Panetta with a visit to Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla. The Institute is among the top four recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and for the past decade has been ranked #1 for the impact of its research publications according to the Institute of Scientific Information. Dean was particularly impressed by the Institute's high throughput screening robot and by the way patent royalty payments are plowed back into further research.

Next, we visited Conatus Pharmaceuticals where CEO Steve Mento, Ph.D., explained how a small virtual biotech company that has taken a drug "off the shelf" from another company is developing a novel clinical stage drug candidate for liver disease. The company employs just fourteen full-time staff and contracts out and collaborates with more than a hundred partners worldwide.

At Ceregene, President & CEO Jeff Ostrove, Ph.D., described the company's work on delivering nervous system growth factors to treat Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and ALS. Jeff also explained how the restrictions on SBIR grants to majority VC backed companies as well as the on-going credit crunch had hampered emerging biotech companies. He emphasized the huge potential value of BIO's effort to include a therapeutic discovery tax credit in health care reform legislation.

Our tour then took us to Phenomix where CEO Laura Shawver, Ph.D., reviewed the company's work on an oral once-daily treatment for Type II diabetes and its protease inhibitor to treat HCV infection.

Next we travelled to Life Technologies where Chairman & CEO Greg Lucier led us on a tour of the multinational biotech tools company that supplies more than 50,000 products to 75,000 customers around the globe. We watched the manufacturing of protein gels and learned of Life Technologies' expansion beyond the health market into biofuels.

The day ended with a lively dinner discussion with area CEOs, Governor Dean, Joe Panetta and California Healthcare Institute (CHI) President & CEO David Gollaher, Ph.D.

On Wednesday morning we left San Diego at 5:00 AM and flew to San Francisco for a tour of the Bay Area biotech hub.

We began the day at Geron Corporation where President and CEO Tom Okarma, Ph.D., M.D., gave his usual passionate and brilliant exposition of the company’s pioneering work on embryonic stem cell research including its first-in-the-world FDA-approved hESC-based therapy clinical study which will treat acute spinal cord injury. Tom also explained Geron's work on telomerase inhibitor drugs attacking cancer stem cells. In the lab, we observed live differentiated cell types, including beating heart cells derived from embryonic stem cells.

At OncoMed Pharmaceuticals, President and CEO Paul Hastings led us on a tour of the company's labs and walked us through a discussion of OncoMed's anti-cancer stem cell antibody program aimed at attacking solid tumors.

Affymax President & CEO Arlene Morris and her leadership staff described for Governor Dean the company's breakthrough development of Hematide now in Phase 3 trials for the treatment of anemia associated with chronic renal failure. The company's unique approach of creating peptides was most impressive.

The final company visit was to Genentech where Governor Dean and I met with CEO and Head of North American Commercial Operations Ian Clark and Chairman Art Levinson, Ph.D. We toured the expansive campus where 8,000 Genentech employees continue to provide global leadership in biotech innovation.

As we did in San Diego, we ended the day with a broad dinner discussion with local CEOs.

After our two-day whirlwind tour, Governor Dean was awed and amazed at the incredible breadth and depth of biotech innovation and even more passionate about our mission to ensure policy makers and the public understand the critical importance and promise of our industry.