Biotech stocks slide as reality emerges on genome science

People thought mapping the genome would mean an explosion in drug discovery. Now they're not so sure
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Six months ago, scientists triumphantly announced they had completed the mapping of the human genome, prompting excitable forecasts of an unprecedented era of medical breakthroughs and fast-track drug discoveries.

Six months ago, scientists triumphantly announced they had completed the mapping of the human genome, prompting excitable forecasts of an unprecedented era of medical breakthroughs and fast-track drug discoveries.

Cancer, heart disease, obesity, infertility, dementia, and influenza, were touted as diseases for which the technology would be able to pinpoint cures, with drugs matched to DNA so no one would suffer side effects.

On the market, biotechnology shares surged, even as the internet and technology bubble was bursting.

Now scepticism is setting in on the biotech front. Is the completed sequencing of the human genome - or the Book of Life as it is known - such a commercial breakthrough? Will the companies involved in developing the technology reap the benefits as swiftly as the market assumed?

Many who invested in some of the hundreds of embryonic biotechs with promising portfolios must be having doubts after watching the share prices of biotech companies persistently slide.

Of course, it was never going to be as easy as some people hoped. First, the human genome mapping is still unfinished. As the small print in last year's announcement said, what had been put together was a working draft. The rest will follow in about two years, it is hoped.

Second, and much more important, was the widespread perception that the sequencing of the human genome would lead to a medical revolution and fat profits for the biotechs almost overnight. There are said to be more than 4,000 biotech companies in Europe and the US.

The perception gathered momentum, despite the attempts by some to steady the tiller by pointing out that, while the sequencing of the genome was revolutionary science, it was only the starting point.

GlaxoSmithKline, for example, one of the lead players, said the sequencing was like providing a list of the words in the dictionary with no explanation of what they mean. The bigger job now is finding a meaning for each word.

Dr Francis Collins, who led the public Human Genome Project, also had a prophetic message that went mostly unheeded. "All of us need to be very careful in our language," he said. "When somebody says 'done' or 'finished' or 'completed', we need to ask them what their definition is because the answers may be very interesting.'"

At the Sanger Centre at Cambridge University where gene sequencing is done, its director, Professor Alan Bradley, said yesterday there is still a long way to go.

There was not too much appreciation of how long it takes to go from knowledge of a gene to knowledge of what it does, then its medical relevance, he added. "That is not a quick process. To put it in perspective, we know something about only 5 per cent of genes. It is the tip of the iceberg, the foundation from which you can move forward, discovering what these things do.

"But it's a foundation, not the house. It will underlie a lot of future discoveries but it is still a long way to go from the raw sequence to knowing cures for diseases.

"I don't know how the euphoria began but it allowed companies to raise money in a positive market. Companies for whom the timing is right can get a cash hoard for lean times. There is a lot of value in the genome for a lot of companies. For companies that are well established like Human Genome Sciences, I see them going forward.''

William Bains, special adviser to Sir Chris Evan's Merlin Biosciences, said of the over-expectations: "It was unfortunate because even with the best modern drug discovery technology, you are talking something between six and 12 years to get a pill from a gene discovery and that is assuming everything goes well.

"It was unrealistic, and it was a shame, because it was a fascinating piece of science that told us about how human beings were put together. But the sequencing was a starting point, not an end product.

"There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from the media. The companies, not unreasonably, thought it was great. I think there could have been a bit of balance put in there.

"Some companies were short-sighted, in that they capitalised on the media enthusiasm when they should have been saying that although they agreed it was exciting, there would be a long timescale and great expense. We are talking about £100m-plus to develop one drug from a gene discovery and in some cases a lot more than that.

"The risk of failure is still very high. You have a long process that is very expensive, and it is not guaranteed to succeed."

Jonathan Pearce, assistant investment manager with PTPO Ventures, said biotechs were now back at realistic levels. "If you looked at the market 15 months ago, there was quite a good reflection of the valuations which seemed to fit with expectations.

"There has been a re-adjustment in the market, and in many ways values have come back to a level which people are more comfortable with. There was a lot of excitement about what it would mean for the drug delivery component. Players within the field knew it was one part ofthe chain.

"There was a lot of American interest in technology stocks and hi-tech solutions to known problems. There was perhaps not as much understanding as one would like to see in the market.

"There was a mentality of talking up stocks, but it is a very complicated field to understand."