Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Biotech, Nanotech, and BIO

Maybe you heard about it on the radio or read about it in the newspaper. Maybe you saw some of the many visitors clogging the streets of Atlanta or touring around Georgia Tech. The commotion was the annual conference of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) which took place at the Georgia World Congress Center from May 18-22.

BIO was unlike any scientific conference I have ever attended. With its focus on exhibition, both academic and industry achievements were showcased within state and national pavilions, and there was ample opportunity for corporate and political entities to mix, mingle, discuss, and deal. A highlight of the Georgia Pavilion was the announcement by Governor Sonny Perdue and Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson of the new Global Center for Medical Innovation (GCMI), which will be housed at Technology Enterprise Park, at the perimeter of Tech’s campus.

Although most of the attention was on the exhibition, I did attend several symposia that touched on the intersection of biotechnology and nanotechnology. In one session, titled “Transformational Tools: How New Research Technologies are Changing the Rules of the Game,” a panel of CEOs from both emerging and mature companies described a variety of new reagents and devices. Accuri Cytometers seeks to “democratize” the application of flow cytometry by developing a small and inexpensive flow cytometer for individual research labs that can compete with the larger units found in core facilities. Life Technologies (a recent merger between Applied Biosystems and Invitrogen) markets QDot probes for diagnostic applications. In an earlier session on cancer nanomedicine, Joe Beechem (VP, Corp. Res. Lab) elucidated the use of these quantum dot labels for single molecule detection in microfluidic flow channels. In particular, Joe described how the problem of non-specific binding can be evaded through the use of multiple colors which significantly improve the statistical odds of positive detections. The link between research and clinical genetics is shortened through the single molecule, whole genome analysis offered by BioNanomatrix. Finally, RainDance Technologies has commercialized a unique microdroplet platform that allows researchers to detect, sort, and capture individual picoliter environments at rapid rates. This venture stems from research at Harvard University, The Medical Research Centre in Cambridge, England, and the ESPCI in Paris. These examples highlight the path whereby nanoscale materials and devices will enhance the toolbox available for biotech discovery and applications.

While taking in the robust discussion of these novel technologies, I was struck by the realization that the theme of the BIO conference was the importance of both the utility and originality of technology itself. This point was driven home by one CEO who told the audience to forget about their own innovative, high-tech offerings and instead focus on the specific needs of the customers. This is not a lesson taught in graduate school, but one learned throughout the course of professional life.

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