Nothing brings out the opportunistic side of the biotech industry like a good healthcare crisis, and swine flu was no exception. As the face masks multiplied, so did the self-promotional press releases from biotech bandwagon-jumpers seeking a little fame and fortune.
At the leading edge of the potential pandemic was Replikins. The Boston-based start-up grabbed headlines late last month by claiming that its virus-analyzing software predicted the swine flu outbreak a year ago. Which, to be fair, it apparently did.
The company said in April 2008 that rising levels of certain peptides indicated the H1N1 strain was due for an outbreak. But while Replikins’ press releases are plentiful, peer-reviewed research on its vaccines is not.
The next day it was Cel-Sci’s turn. The immunotherapy company is no stranger to bio-opportunism: its shares got a boost in 2005 thanks to government interest in its immune-stimulating approach to avian flu. Although there hasn’t been any talk of impending grants this time around, Cel-Sci issued a press release claiming its technology could potentially work against illnesses “such as swine flu.”
It was enough for investors, who pushed the company’s shares up about 50 percent — although Cel-Sci stock began nose-diving the very next day. (It remains a penny stock trading at about 29 cents.)
Three days into the flu fear-mongering, the gloves — and any last shred of dignity or actual newsworthiness — came off.
FluGen, a vaccine maker spun out of the University of Wisconsin, issued a press release applauding the President’s request for emergency swine flu funding. The company must have picked up the idea from its Wisconsin-based stem-cell brethren, who never miss an opportunity to make back-slapping, congratulatory public statements any time anyone makes progress in the field — from President Obama lifting the federal funding ban to Geron gaining clearance for a clinical trial.
And then there was medical marijuana company Cannabis Science, which urged public health officials to “take medical cannabis seriously” as a swine flu treatment, offered to provide its cannabis-based lozenge to the U.S. government, and warned cannabis users who get the flu to switch from an inhaled to an edible formulation. Brownies, anyone?
Ironically, bio-opportunism reflects one of the biotech industry’s best qualities: your competition does not have to fail for you to succeed. In fact, your competitors’ successes can often validate your approach, in which case a little coattail riding can be warranted.
But there’s a line between supporting the industry and supporting oneself. When going for the latter, it’s somewhat less nausea-inducing to be honest, like Aethlon Medical.
In a press release claiming Aethlon’s Hemopurifier device “would likely” be able to treat swine flu, chairman and CEO Jim Joyce said: "It is important that our shareholders understand we are fully cognizant of the potential opportunity associated with the emerging swine flu pandemic."