Life Sciences Reaching New Heights--Impressions From the World Congress Biotechnology 2000

BERLIN--After an inspiring week of stimulating lectures and vivid discussions, the world congress BIOTECHNOLOGY 2000 ended on September 8. The quadrennial IUPAC conference was attended by more than 3700 life scientists from 71 countries. Through all the sessions one common theme could be identified: the availability of complete genomic data sets has propelled biotechnology research to new heights. From bioinformatics to drug design or environment protection, the continuing boom of biotech has created dozens of fascinating career opportunities for young scientists.

Xenia Boergen, a biochemist from Berlin, described the unique event as "great, exceptional." Because of the vast array of intriguing sessions, top speakers from all over the globe sometimes left the visiting scientists with the ordeal of choosing the best among equals, Boergen recalls. About 50 invited lecturers from industry and academia presented overviews on the hot topics of each of the conference's sections--from combinatorial biotech to proteomics to gene therapy.

Plenary lectures from Glenn McGall of Affymetrix Inc. or from William Rutter of Chiron Corp., for example, gave insights into the latest developments in industrial DNA chip technology research and AIDS research. Nobel laureate Manfred Eigen from Göttingen, Germany, explained the method and benefits of his newly developed correlation fluorescence spectroscopy, a new technique that allows scientists to detect and sequence single biological molecules such as prions that are thought to be responsible for Alzheimer's or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Such nanoscale detection and manipulation are the first steps in the new and rapidly growing field of nanobiotechnology, says Michael Apel, from the Deutsches Rheuma-Forschungszentrum. "Researching structures and functions at the nanoscale opens so far unknown potentials for molecular diagnostics, prevention of cancer metastases, or transplant design," Apel tells Next Wave.

Funding prospects continue to be bright. Since biotech research is continuing to create jobs and stimulate the economy, life scientists can rely on being supported by many generous national and European funding programs. In the last 5 years, the number of European biotech start-ups has increased from about 580 to 1350, resulting in an employment surge from 17,000 to 53,000 in the branch. The current E.U. program "Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources" (1999-2002) has a 2.4 billion euro budget. "We are about to launch our third call for proposals for RTD projects in November 2000 and will be including in that call specific attention to genome-related projects, which could receive over 100 million euro," says Rainer Gerold from the European Community's Research Directorate.

Germany alone will increase its national funding for genome research by 70% next year, to a total of 144 million DM, Germany's research minister Edelgard Bulmahn announced. Even more millions might come from the recent sale of Universal Mobile Telecommunications Systems by the German Ministry of Finance. "I have applied for a total of 200 million DM of extra money to spend on the human genome in the next few years," Bulmahn told the conference participants.

Parallel to the broad scientific program, young scientists had plenty of opportunities to boost their careers by refreshing old contacts and making new ones. More than 120 biotechnology firms turned the conference into a "gigantic job fair," says Apel. Boergen agrees. "Besides the chance get updates in some fields I was particularly interested in, meeting colleagues and making new contacts made the conference really valuable," she tells Next Wave.


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