The U.S. government will invest billions in biotechnology over the next few years to capitalize on its promise for dramatically improving public health, according to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Speaking during the opening session of the 2002 Emerging Issues Forum at North Carolina State University, Thompson said biotechnology is creating new areas of focus for his department: combating bioterrorism, improving the safety of America’s food system and stem cell research into new treatments for various diseases.

“Biotechnology is so exciting … it’s fundamentally transforming the practice of medicine,” Thompson told hundreds of forum attendees. “The tremendous universities here in the Research Triangle will continue to be right in the middle of new breakthroughs in biotechnology.”

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Research Triangle Park, host NC State University, Duke University and University of North Carolina all have launched major efforts into genomic research. RTP and North Carolina also is one of the largest concentrations of biotech industry into the country, according to Ernst & Young. Thompson’s speech could bode well for North Carolina companies focused on life sciences, genetic research and pharmaceuticals.

Fighting bioterrorism a focus for Bush

President Bush has proposed spending $4.3 billion this year to fight bioterrorism, including $1.7 billion in scientific research grants, Thompson said. Other money will be spent to upgrade public hospitals and train health care workers to spot the symptoms of diseases like anthrax and smallpox earlier, to expand labs for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to develop new vaccines for highly infectious diseases.

Thompson, who was introduced by GlaxoSmithKline Chief Operating Officer Bob Ingram, said he is encouraging major drug companies like GSK to return to producing vaccines for the government by providing them some legal immunity in the event of adverse patient reactions and guaranteeing them a decent sale price.

The government also will spend an extra $100 million this year to expand food inspection systems, he said, noting that he was “absolutely mortified” upon taking office last year to find that just 1 percent of the country’s food supply is inspected annually.

But he did note the positive impacts biotechnology has on the food supply, including genetically altered crops that produce healthier foods, limit the use of pesticides and other chemicals and dramatically improve yields.

Stem cells a source for ‘new optimism’

Similar advances in genomics and proteomics are creating new treatments for chronic diseases like cancer, said Thompson, who was accompanied on his trip to Raleigh by Andrew von Eschenbach, the new director of the National Cancer Institute. Von Eschenbach said studying diseases on the biological level is giving researchers insights into how diseases function that atomic-level study never provided.

Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor, spoke with pride about ground-breaking research at the University of Wisconsin into creating various healthy cells from embryonic stem cells, and he remains passionate about the field. Although the government has limited the number of embryonic cell lines available for research, he said some scientists are examining the possibility of using adult stem cells as well.

“This has the potential for opening up all kinds of new avenues,” he said. “It gives anyone who has or knows someone with a malady new optimism.”

The Emerging Issues Forum, “Biotechnology and Humanity at the Crossroads of a New Era,” continues through Tuesday at the McKimmon Conference Center at N.C. State. For more information, visit