Joint Commission on Technology and Science

September 7, 2000, Richmond


Virginia's economy is composed of numerous technology industries. The best known is the information technology sector in Northern Virginia. This year, for the first time, venture capital funding in the Washington, D.C. area (including Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland) exceeded that of New York, with more than $1 billion.

What most people do not know is that Virginia is competing to host a commercial spaceport for VentureStar, a fully reusable space plane and possibly the successor to the space shuttle. Also, Virginia is home to one of the most wired rural communities in America: the Blacksburg Electronic Village. In addition, Virginia is home to the nation's largest distance learning provider of its kind, Old Dominion University's TELETECHNET.

Virginia's Biotechnology Industry

Virginia has many well-kept secrets in a variety of technology industries. One of Virginia's best-kept secrets is its biotechnology industry, the focus of the September 7, 2000, commission meeting. The meeting was held at the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park (VBRP), an incubator for a number of the businesses in the biotechnology industry. This VBRP is a joint initiative of the Commonwealth, Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond. It is Virginia's research park for the life sciences and is home to 34 biotechnology, bioscience and related companies and research institutions.

The impact of the biotechnology industry on the United States is illustrated by a May 2000 survey conducted by Ernst & Young. According to that study, the biotechnology industry doubled in size from the years 1993 to 1999. It added, both directly and indirectly, to the U.S. economy almost 440,000 new jobs, $47 billion in additional revenues, $11 billion in research and development spending and $10 billion in tax revenues.

Its impact on Virginia was presented by the president and CEO of the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park. Virginia is home to numerous research institutions and companies in the public, private and non-profit sectors of the economy, which fuel various sectors of the biotechnology industry. Its colleges and universities, research parks, medical centers, federal labs and other organizations emphasize areas like health care, biomedical engineering, bioinformatics, the environment, educational software and training, and diagnostics. These organizations are spread across the Commonwealth.

There exists a need for a statewide economic development strategy specifically for the biotechnology sector. This strategy should foster a long-term and continuing relationship between industry and higher education. It should place a greater emphasis on the growth of its industry as opposed to recruiting from other parts of the country. Of course, it will require investment, the necessary equipment and tools to grow, and coordination and cooperation among governments, businesses and non-profit institutions.

Bioinformatics: Biotechnology Meets Information Technology

As the biotechnology industry advances, scientists will continue to gather more information than humans can process. Managing this information would be equivalent to a professional trying to remember everything in his field as he furthers his work and research. To overcome the impossibility of that task, a relatively new field has emerged bioinformatics. Bioinformatics is the management and analysis of data using advanced computing techniques.

The director of the newly opened Virginia Bioinformatics Institute enlightened the commission on this marriage of biotechnology and information technology. The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute was established in 2000 with initial funding from the Tobacco Commission for its first two years of operations. It is a Commonwealth of Virginia initiative with a research and economic development mission. The institute provides new and unprecedented opportunities for the Commonwealth in life sciences.

The Internet has changed the way science is conducted, by allowing creation of large-scale databases for immediate sharing of research results worldwide. Engineering of biological laboratories from cottage industries into data farms has enabled the genome project to achieve its goals and created an inundation of data. Bioinformatics is needed to create knowledge and products from the data. It is creating new requirements for the information technology industry and is transforming it. Corporations from life sciences companies to biotechnology companies to information technology companies are becoming more dependent on each other's technologies and are creating new opportunities for each other. The genome project has revealed the unity of life at the most basic level. This revelation will allow the engineering of a more sustainable agricultural system and radical improvements in human health care.

Genetic Engineering: A New Lease on Life for Tobacco

The biotechnology industry is already producing amazing products. It has produced a means for tobacco to save lives. People do not smoke it, and there is no danger to the people near those who use it. This creation is not even science fiction, but science fact.

A professor at Virginia Tech is one of the founders of CropTech Corp., the company that will commercialize this discovery. The discovery is a genetically altered tobacco plant in which scientists put specific genes. They harvest the product of these genes in the form of human proteins from the leaves. These proteins may be useful in developing new drugs and vaccines to fight disease. They can lower the cost and increase the safety of complex drugs, potentially replace the entire crop of tobacco grown in Virginia by the next decade, and can save many lives by addressing the current limitations in the supply of these drugs.

CropTech uses tobacco because it is the easiest crop to genetically engineer. The company can mass-produce enough raw material to produce the proteins. Each plant produces more than one million seeds. CropTech works with the tobacco growers and together they have the potential to build a new tobacco industry.

Applications of the Jefferson Lab Free Electron Laser Facility for Biotechnology

In addition to these research institutions, Virginia is home to two federal labs. One of those labs, Jefferson Labs, has the Free Electron Laser, the world's most powerful, tunable infrared laser, which completed commissioning last year (1999).

Jefferson Labs acts as a microscope to enable researchers to look into the inner structure of the nucleus. The purpose of their research is to help them (and society) understand how quarks and gluons make up the nucleus and the forces that hold matter together. The lab is the world's most powerful microscope for studying the nucleus of the atom. The lab's electron beam travels around a 7/8-mile tunnel five times in 30 millionths of a second to achieve the necessary power in the most efficient manner. This beam can be split for use by three simultaneous experiments.

The laser research can be used to improve inkjet printers by decreasing the size of the hole and increasing resolution, coating material to make it impervious to lasers, and localizing the effect of radiation and chemotherapy so that it only kills cancer cells and not the immune system. It can change the characteristics of material so that it resists germs and bacteria; this application is important for sterile environments like medical centers.

The Human Genome Project

On June 26, 2000, President Bill Clinton's and Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement that a draft of the human DNA sequence had been completed sent the world a signal that the future of biology had forever been changed. Knowing the human DNA sequence, or the DNA sequence of any other organism, is to have a complete instruction set or owner's manual for that organism. Tomorrow's biologists will try to understand and then use this information to improve and protect human health, to develop safer and more plentiful sources of food and energy, to make industrial processes more efficient and to clean up the environment.

The program coordinator at the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Biological and Environmental Research one of the partners of the Genome Project explained how this project is the only beginning of mankind's understanding of genetics. At one time, a scientist spent his entire career studying one DNA sequence. Today, IBM is building a computer so powerful that it can download the entire Internet in one second to determine what one gene does. The results of all of this research will be improved and cheaper health care, clean and affordable energy, increased food production, new environmental cleanup strategies and more efficient industrial production. For example, through this research, scientists will be able to create medications that are specifically tailored to help a portion of the population without causing side effects.

TeleMedicine: New Frontiers for Technology and Science

Now that we are on our way to knowing which genes cause what diseases, we still have to find doctors who can use this knowledge. Dr. Ronald C. Merrell, chair of the VCU Department of Surgery and director of the Medical Informatics and Technology Applications Consortium, presented "TeleMedicine: New Frontiers for Technology and Science."

Dr. Merrell was closely involved with Senator John Glenn's second space flight. His researchers also monitored the team that scaled Mt. Everest in April and May of 1999, using some of the same technology that Senator Glenn carried into space on the shuttle mission. One of the projects involved using wireless technology to monitor the location and vital signs of the climbers at various altitudes. Another project involved a real-time collaboration of doctors in different locations around the world on a surgical procedure that one of them was performing. With technology, some day doctors will be able to wear a computer and project onto a surgery patient an X-ray to determine the exact location of a tumor. Some of this technology already exists, and much more needs to be developed.

Conclusion

The legislature will soon face a host of issues, such as privacy, cloning, testing, and use of this information. But before policymakers can tackle the issues, they need to learn the secrets. The Joint Commission on Technology and Science provided that forum to its members and the public as a step toward encouraging the beneficial growth of this industry.


The Honorable Joe T. May, Chairman
Staff contact: Mitchell P. Goldstein

THE RECORD