Biotech experts gather at White House Summit

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BY ALAN BOYLE

MORE than 100 biotech researchers, industry executives and government officials met at the White House recently for a summit focusing on America’s bioeconomy — the range of products, services and data derived from biological processes and bioscience research.

“The bioeconomy is already an integral part of the general economy,” White House chief technology officer Michael Kratsios told the attendees. “In 2017, revenues from engineered biological systems reached nearly $400 billion.”

He cited figures from SynBioBeta suggesting that the private sector alone invested more than $3.7 billion in early-stage biological engineering and manufacturing tech companies during 2018.

“But we are not only here because of what biotechnology has done — we are invested in what biotechnology is going to do,” Kratsios said.

For example, in 2017 the Food and Drug Administration approved the first treatment that makes use of CAR-T immunotherapy to fight leukemia. CAR-T — that is, chimeric antigen receptor T-cells — involves the use of genetic engineering to help a patient’s own immune cells kill off cancer cells more effectively. Several Seattle institutions, including the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, are leaders in the field.

Kratsios also cited the example of Project Medusa, a Pentagon-backed experiment that uses bacterial processes to harden the surface of a military-grade runway.

He noted that the White House lists bioeconomic innovation among its priorities for research and development funding, and that President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order aimed at modernising how agricultural biotech products are regulated.

“By speeding up the approval process for biotechnology, we will reduce the costs to review biotech plants by millions of dollars and bring new products to market faster,” Kratsios said. Looking ahead, Kratsios said the Trump administration would focus on building up the infrastructure for America’s bioeconomy, attracting talent and protecting genetic and biological data.

“As the bioeconomy develops, we need to ensure it is rooted in American values and is always used for the benefit of the American people,” he said.

The summit was meant to start the process: Officials from federal agencies ranging from the Defense Department to the Office of Science and Technology Policy laid out their perspectives on biotech, and representatives of biotech industries and academia talked about the opportunities as well as the challenges to U.S. bioeconomic leadership. Among the panelists was Rob Carlson, managing director at Bioeconomy Capital and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.

“This is an enormous opportunity, and requires investment and bold thinking,” Carlson was quoted as saying.

The summit concluded with a string of small-group breakout sessions.

In its summary of the summit proceedings, the White House said it would work with federal agencies to improve cooperation and make sure the bioeconomy is recognised as a priority in key R&D budgets.-GEEKWIRE