BC’s new love affair with biotech


DRUG BUST by Alan Cassels

According to our new, cringe-worthy slogan, BC is the “Best Place on Earth.” No doubt we’re very lucky and BC has many advantages and, yes, it is richly endowed with incredible, natural beauty. One blogger, however, has called our “Best Place on Earth” slogan the “worst slogan on the planet.” Amen to that.

While we’re on the topics of slogans, did you know the BC government has also been touting British Columbia as “Canada’s premier destination for life science, investment, talent and enterprise?” Not only that, but apparently we offer one of the “most progressive and cost effective R&D environments in North America with specific tax advantages for the life science companies.”

That’s right, according to a provincial government ad in LifeSciences British Columbia magazine – the official trade publication for BC’s pharmaceutical and biotech companies – “more and more, BC is becoming recognized as the place for biotech businesses.”

So as we suffer the wincing embarrassment of our official government bragging about being the ‘bestest,’ we also, unfortunately, must contend with the crowing about BC being the place for breeding top-notch bio-engineering.

BC’s current fleet of elected officials are obviously keen to catch the glow off BC’s Biotech darlings, as evidenced in LifeSciences. If you haven’t read it, let me fill you in. Its glossy pages are replete with stories of BC’s groundbreaking scientific discoveries, sprinkled with smiling ‘grip n’ grin’ photos of various BC politicians and university officials snuggling up to pharmaceutical company CEOs in a manner that’s even more cringe-inducing than our provincial slogan.

One photo features the premier himself, addressing a gala awards night for BC’s biotech industry, themed “Nurturing Life’s Ecosystem.” With not a little hubris, there he is, telling assembled international and local dignitaries about his government’s wonderful tax structures and incentives and how committed BC is to luring the “best and the brightest.” Essentially, he’s offering up the “Best Place on Earth,” as a rich and fertile ground to plant, and grow, pharmaceutical discoveries.

Surely the marriage of politics and pharma research is a wonderful thing, no? Like pharmaceuticals, policies have benefits, but they also have potential harms. Technology almost always bites back; so too do public policies where sacrifices are made to pursue new objectives. As BC embraces pharmaceutical development, with truckloads of our money, we might not be too impertinent in asking “what’s in it for us?”

Idiot fool! Don’t you know we’re “growing the knowledge economy” with medical research that attracts high-paying jobs, celebrity researchers and world-class research institutes? The hunger for biotech in BC is understandable, given the experience of QLT Inc., a Vancouver biotech company that earned an early reputation (a decade ago) as a leader in photodynamic therapy, which is used to treat diseases such as macular degeneration. Like ‘Big Gambling,’ the perceived windfall associated with the success of QLT got our governments and universities swooning over the promise of barrels of biotech money. Yet when you look more closely, you see that QLT is what we researchers call an “outlier.” In other words, it’s very different from the norm.

Back in 2001, QLT’s former president Julia Levy said, “Of the 490 publicly traded biotech companies, only 14 of them are profitable.” QLT happened to be one of them. So, you might ask, what is the lust for homegrown biotech going to cost us, what will it deliver, and at the end of the day, how exactly will BC and Canadian taxpayers benefit from our government’s courtship with biotechnology?

The official numbers put out by official sources – and they’re probably inflated – show that over $2 billion has been invested in public sector research, infrastructure and institutions in BC over the last decade. But where have those investments gone?

The laundry list includes BC’s new Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD), which, at only two-years-old, has bagged about $70 million in funding from the federal government, industry and academia. Then there’s the BC Capital Renaissance Fund, a $90 million fund designed to “earmark money for biotech and high tech investments for BC.” And last year, Western Economic Diversification Canada anted up $50 million (half from the feds, half from the province) to “support job creation, knowledge based business and technological innovation.” And lastly, let’s not forget the perennial money hole known as Genome BC, which is busily leveraging tax dollars, allegedly attracting about $300 million in research money to BC since 2005.

A lot of this research involves industry “partners” and there have been oodles of new announcements of big pharma’s investments in BC, including Astra’s $1.5 million to study obesity and “pre-diabetic metabolic syndrome,” Merck’s $1 million gift to SFU and Pfizer’s $1 million gift to the Centre for Drug Research and Development.

That’s where the money is coming from, but where is it going? Lots of it goes to universities, especially medical schools. Fifty-three percent, or $247 million of UBC’s total research endeavour, went to the UBC Faculty of Medicine to fund academic and clinical teams.

Pharma’s little million-dollar donations and “partnership grants” are really just small potatoes, basically constituting down payments to buy what the industry really wants: innumerable (and likely incalculable) government ‘incentives.’

Speaking to LifeSciences British Columbia magazine, Simon Pimstone, CEO of Xenon Pharmaceuticals, put the puck in the net when he articulated what the drug companies expect as a carrot to come to BC: “We need tax incentives, foreign venture capital and people to flow into the province and a personal tax structure to recruit executives. We need more out of the province and it’s not all up to the pharmaceutical industry. There also needs to be capital gains exemptions and stock options – a small measure to stimulate the economy.”

Do those extra goodies get included when you consider the overall cost of luring biotech to BC? I doubt it. What is so worrisome for me, however, is how pharma’s research machinery is busy influencing what nobody is really talking about: public policy making. BC Biotech’s official position paper in 2006 delivers illuminating, and somewhat chilling, sentiments on how BC manages its drug budget and the appropriate use of pharmaceuticals by its citizens. The report put our cherished, and commendable, BC Pharmacare program in the crosshairs by noting that BC’s “restrictive formularies” – the basket of drugs we choose to pay for – basically “reduce market access for the products of our companies and our commercialization partners” and “unreasonably restrict market access of the biotechnology products that are developed within our sector.”

It specifically paints a target on two of BC’s most treasured assets in terms of managing appropriate and cost-effective drug therapy in noting that UBC’s Therapeutics Initiative and BC’s Reference-Based Pricing involve long-term costs and benefits that “give little, if any, attention to the importance of economic development.”

Call me naïve, but since when did our public drug plan exist as a generator of economic development? Under that kind of thinking, the sicker we are and the more money we spend on drugs are good for the economy. It’s the same thinking that sees oil tankers aground on reefs as a good thing for the economy because they create jobs.

The report clearly sets out that UBC’s Therapeutics Initiative (TI) – a group of independent academics who study the benefits, harms and costs of drugs – is the bad guy in all of this, stating, “The practices of the TI do not support a vibrant biotech community as they typically prevent market access of British Columbia products of innovation.” Not only is this not true, but you hardly need reminding that the TI is about keeping unsafe drugs out of the hands of our doctors, and, in my opinion, the world needs more groups like the TI, not fewer. The current response of our drug-addled government? Let’s get rid of it.

Let’s get a reality check here. Is investing in biotech really all it’s cracked up to be? One interesting take on biotech investment comes from a report last month in GeneWatch UK (www.genewatch.org) entitled Bioeconomy: a Science Fantasy. Author Helen Wallace could be talking about BC when she says, “The big problem with the science budget is not its total size but that the wrong people are deciding how to spend it. A cycle of hype is driving research investment decisions, which have become disconnected from reality.”

Wallace notes that current investments in the biosciences are hardly going to “deliver the claimed future benefits to quality of life and the economy.” Looking at biotech’s global output, she says, “After decades of investment, the net value of the bio-economy worldwide has been estimated to be zero or negative” and that the UK government and the European Union “have wasted billions of taxpayers’ money on a science fantasy.”

I sure hope the same isn’t true of BC’s forays into biotech, but let me leave you with this. Science has an incredibly important place both in our society and our economy, but who is assessing the benefits and the harms involved in all that investment? The politicians gloating at the podium of industry’s gala events? University bureaucracies competing with each other over how much pharma money they can devour? Science entrepreneurs who see public safety and value in medicine as a threat to their business models?

Call me naïve again, but until we start the conversation about the overall public impact of “growing” BC’s biotech economy, I’d rather we not lust so greedily over pharma’s promises.

BC the “Best Place on Earth?” Not on your life. There is always room for improvement.

Alan Cassels is a modern-day Jonathan Swift wannabe, as well as a drug policy researcher at the University of Victoria and the author of The ABCs of Disease Mongering. Read his other writings at www.alancassels.com