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Sat., June 25, 2011

Biotech worth every penny

From breakthroughs in treating prostate cancer to discovering the genetic cure for color blindness, biomedical researchers in the state of Washington are among the nation’s leaders when it comes to cutting-edge innovation.

Scientists at Washington State University are working on numerous biomedical innovations. In the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, Dr. Guy Palmer, Dr. Terry McElwain and their colleagues are developing vaccines for infectious diseases transmitted from animals to humans. Those diseases, which account for 70 percent of human infectious diseases, strike hardest in less developed countries.

Research by WSU Professors Joseph Harding, Ph.D., and J.W. Wright, Ph.D., includes using computer-aided design and organic synthesis methodologies to generate molecules with potent anti-cancer activity and the ability to speed dermal wound repair.

But these advances are the product of more than just research genius and hard work. Behind all the new vaccines and biologics that come to market, there is an entire industry made up of manufacturers, marketers, technicians and, of course, the scientists themselves.

In fact, Washington’s biotech industry is responsible for more than 77,000 jobs across the state. Every year, the sector’s goods and services contribute more than $11 billion to Washington’s economy. And research dollars are flowing in – the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation alone award more than $850 million to Washington-based scientists annually.

Lawmakers in Olympia, as well as those in Washington, D.C., must support the biotech industry. Its success will drive economic growth, create jobs and help our state – and the country – stay competitive in the innovative ideas race.

The world economy today has become increasingly knowledge-driven. There is a direct relationship between success in education and breakthroughs in scientific innovation. The U.S. has long stood at the top the global heap – and Washington near the top of the national one – but that dominance has slipped dramatically in recent years.

Every indicator shows that educational success in this country, particularly in math and science, is in jeopardy. The most recent comparative study of national math and science proficiency showed that American students’ scores ranked below those of 30 other countries. In the state of Washington, only 42 percent of high school sophomores proved “proficient” in math last year. In science, only 55 percent earned that status.

These figures illustrate a national epidemic of low math and science proficiency and raise concerns about what the demographics of engineering Ph.D. programs in this country will look like down the road. That is especially true since 70 percent of those hard-science graduate students already hail from foreign countries.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to benchmarks in innovation, the U.S. is also showing signs of decline. Compared with the 1990s, this decade the Food and Drug Administration has granted fewer than half the number of new drug approvals. And, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, while China’s filings for new patents rose 56 percent last year, the United States’ dropped by almost 2 percent.

We urgently need to reverse these trends on both a state and national scale.

With its high-achieving universities and thriving pharmaceutical industry of 50-plus firms, Washington has the potential to be a benchmark for innovation. We need to make sure that Washington’s scientists of tomorrow are getting the education and support they need to succeed.

Though doubling down on achievement in Washington classrooms is a critical first step, reform in Washington, D.C., is just as important.

Specifically, thanks to recent votes by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the United States is one step closer to a strengthened system of patent protection. The more likely a drug’s developer is to recoup its billions in research and development investment, the more likely the company will be to invest in future breakthrough drugs. Streamlining the FDA’s complex drug-approval process is another key to promoting innovation.

As both our state and national economies begin to rebound from recession, we need to invest in those industries that will facilitate this recovery. In Washington, one of the most consistent performers is the biopharmaceutical sector. While the recession has hit many sectors of our economy with as much as 20 percent job loss, biotech has increased by 5 percent.

Not only will the biotech sector’s success improve the state’s financial situation, but its output – the cutting-edge treatments and cures developed at research universities like WSU – will improve the lives of all Americans.

Dr. Elson S. Floyd is president of Washington State University.

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