David: We have with us the CEO of Human Genome Sciences, Dr. William Haseltine, and Dr. Haseltine, it is a pleasure to have you on The Motley Fool Radio Show. We are fans of biotechnology and we're very interested in your company and that's why we wanted to have you on.
Haseltine: Thank you very much for the opportunity.
David: Now, let me begin by asking you my Aunt Wilma question. Are you ready?
Haseltine: OK, I'm ready.
David: OK, If you were sitting next to my Aunt Wilma on a bus and she were to ask you what you did for a living, what would you say?
Haseltine: I'd tell her that I turn human genes into drugs to treat and cure disease, that we've discovered most of the human genes, and we're in the process of discovering cures for many diseases, and those cures will come sooner than she thinks.
David: And if she were to follow up by asking, "When you say sooner than I think, can you give me some rough time frame? Not necessarily for your company, but for this technology overall."
Haseltine: Well, since we're the first to take this approach to bring new drugs to the market, the time frame is our time frame, which is we should have, if all goes well, drugs for sale within two, possibly three years. They will be the first of many. Most of those first few drugs will be from Human Genome Sciences.
David: I notice the mission of Human Genome Sciences, Tom if you tap in, is to develop products to prevent, treat, and cure disease based on the company's leadership in the discovery and understanding of human genes.
Tom: Now Dr. Haseltine, biotechnology came in favor on Wall Street back in the late '80s and had an incredible run with a number of stocks doing extremely well, but then a lot of them disappeared from the scene, and you were kind of left with Amgen and Biogen and a few other businesses. But, for the most part, people look back on that time period and say biotechnology flamed out, and now we are seeing the biotech industry coming back into favor. Is there any reason to be worried that what happened before will happen now, and if not, why?
Haseltine: I don't think what happened before will happen again for the leading biotechnology companies. The reason is a pretty simple reason. The companies that got their start in the late '70s and very early '80s were capitalizing on knowledge that had been gained over the past 20 to 30 years. All they really did was supply a new manufacturing technique called bioengineering, where you can take one gene and put it into a different context and basically manufacture the parts at will. They knew pretty much what genes and proteins they wanted. They wanted human growth hormones, human insulin, clotting factor, etc. So the fundamental discoveries had been made.
In the '80s and first part of the '90s, people had to do two things -- they had to discover the drugs and then manufacture them, and that turned out to be too hard. The revolution that we created when we created our company, Human Genome Sciences, was to systematize, make it simpler to find new drugs. We did that by discovering virtually all the human genes between 1993 and 1995. That allowed us to sort through those and find which ones would be medically useful. So this revolution is much more broadly based. We've added to the power of biotechnology rapid-discovery tools, rapid-discovery methods as to what we should use for drugs, and that's the real difference. We now have engaged the power of computational biology, robotic instruments, and assembly line methods to speed up and make much, much more efficient the discovery of new compounds.
Tom: Dr. Haseltine, when we think about some of the drugs that Human Genome Sciences is producing and has produced, how will they affect our daily lives let's say 10 years from now?
Haseltine: For most people it will be a very pleasant experience. They'll be able to go into their doctor's office and the doctor will say to them, "I am happy to tell you I can do something for your disease this year that I couldn't do last year." Let's take one of the major problems of aging people -- large, persistent sores in their skin. Their circulation breaks down, they may not be as mobile, they develop large, persistent sores. Today, there is not much anybody can do for that. In the future, I believe they will be able to say now there's a new drug on the market. You spray this on every time the bandage is changed and we have a good chance of healing that wound. In terms of people with coronary heart disease -- rather than going into a doctor's office and saying you've got a coronary artery blockage and we're going to have to do open heart surgery, the doctor will say, "Well, come back in a week and we will do an inpatient procedure. We'll put a catheter in your leg and your heart, implant new genes, and you go home and grow your own new blood vessels."
Tom: Dr. Haseltine, when I think about this new technology and where the world is headed, I can't help but think about Bones, the doctor on Star Trek, who I remember in one scene in one episode I was watching, said that we were savages as a species a hundred or two hundred years ago because we used to cut into the human bodies to try to heal it. Are we moving into a world where there will be no surgery, where most of the solutions will be some sort of injection or some drug that you can intake based on genetic findings?
Haseltine: I think that is a very good summary of where we think medicine is headed. I've named this new field "regenerative medicine." The first and best choice will be to stimulate the body to regrow itself from the inside out. We think that's a real possibility. That's what a number of our drugs are designed to do. We place them in precise locations with new technologies, non-invasive technologies, and let them stimulate the body to regrow itself. And if we can't do that, our next goal will be to regrow an organ from your own tissues outside the body for implantation. That's the second phase of regenerative medicine. Our own drugs are firmly located in the first phase -- that is, stimulating the body to regrow itself. So that vision of Bones on Star Trek I think is a vision we can help make come true.
David: When you say stimulate the body to regrow itself, is there not a concern on the ethical side of the business that humans will begin using this technology not to regrow, but to grow things that did not exist before and change their biological makeup for, let's say, vanity as a driving reason and certainly other reasons as well. Will it not be just going to the doctor and saying, "Can you help cure this disease?" but also, "Can you make me 6'4" tall -- I'd like to dunk a basketball."
Haseltine: We certainly don't see that in the near horizon. There are certainly concerns and you have to acknowledge those concerns. But I think the way to think about these medicines is you now go to the doctor and he says, "I'm afraid you have diabetes. We can now give you a purified manufactured human substance called insulin." It's grown up and manufactured. It's no longer purified from pigs or other animals. Here a child comes in, the child is destined to not grow very tall. We can now give him growth hormones. It will be a much more natural medicine to enhance what the body can do. It's a much harder task. One we really haven't learned how to approach to actually change what the body is. We can improve the body by restoring health. I don't know if we yet know how to make it better or different from what it already is.