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Firms Develop Lucrative Products To Fight BioTerrorism - 2001-11-27

U.S. industry is gearing up to fight bioterrorism. Many firms are looking at ways their products could be used for military and defense purposes in the wake of the September 11 attacks and subsequent anthrax scares.

U.S. biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies spend about $26 billion a year on research and development. Industry analyst Alan Louie says that amount could double if the government begins funding anti-terrorist treatments and therapies. And, he says, if the United States wants to push its biotech industries in that direction, it will have to offer substantial financial incentives.

"The high expense of drug development requires that the drug have a sufficient market to justify that expenditure. So that is a basic aspect of the biotech industry, trying to grow on the potential revenues of blockbuster drugs, billion dollar drugs," he said.

Fortunately, Alan Louie says, several of the "blockbuster" drugs developed during the past decade to serve the U.S. consumer market just happen to have potential in the fight against bioterrorism as well.

The firm Avant Immunotherapeutics, for example, has spent years looking at ways to strengthen the human immune system against a host of different diseases. The company's Chief Executive Officer Una Ryan says that search led the firm to develop an anthrax vaccine.

"The incredible power of anthrax is that it will allow you to take antigens - things that allow you to make antibodies - into cells. So we were harnessing the immune system using two anthrax proteins to target chronic viral diseases and cancers. But on September 12, we realized we had a component of an anthrax vaccine in our very hands. And it is called Recombinent PA. So we licensed that to the Department of Defense," he said.

In the same way, Ms. Ryan says, a vaccine Avant developed to prevent travelers from getting cholera could be altered in a way that would enable it to deliver protection against biological warfare agents. She says many biotech firms have developed products with such dual possibilities. "I do not think many of us are changing our mission statements or our business plans. We do not have to morph into something we are not. We can use a lot of the technologies we have and just tweak them a little towards the biowarfare defense issues," Ms. Ryan said.

Ms. Ryan says a government stimulus package would prompt the transformation of many peacetime cures into wartime defenses.