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Biotech Drops After Clinton-Blair Comment
NEW YORK — The sell-off of U.S. biotechnology firms accelerated on Tuesday after the leaders of the United States and Britain said scientists worldwide should have free access to research on the mapping of human genes.

The drop came after President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair called research into the human genetic blueprint "one of the most significant scientific projects of all time" and proposed that to fully realize its potential the data should be freely available.

That sent shares of genomics companies — which are making money or hope to profit from that information — into further decline, extending a week-long downturn in biotechnology shares, including genomics.

But the Nasdaq biotech stocks remain up nearly 37 percent from the beginning of the year, riding high from a sustained bull run that began last year on the promise that gene mapping and its off-shoots could revolutionize medicine and reap rewards for early investors.

"The catalysts du jour for the downtrend are the comments made by Clinton and Blair," said Richard Van Den Broek, an analyst with Chase Hambrecht & Quist.

Analyst Eric Ende of Lehman Brothers said several issues were hurting the market, including disappointing trial results for Chiron Corp's FGF-2 drug for treating coronary artery disease as well as Clinton's support of putting genomic data into the public domain.

"The news on Chiron was pretty negative and some (investors) are thinking 'Hey, maybe this genomics stuff isn't as sure fire as originally thought,"' said Ende.

Ende said the recent spate of news helped accelerate the decline in the biotech sector, which "was already in a profit-taking mode."

The politicians' call came a week after U.S. company Celera Genomics, racing to become the first firm to sequence all the genes in the human body, said it was concerned that if it shared information with publicly funded research centers its data would be used by rivals.

Celera is one of a number of private companies that plan to patent or otherwise license their information on human genes for profit.

It has been in talks to enter into partnership with the publicly funded team of international researchers working on the Human Genome Project, but the talks appeared to fall apart last week over its demands to retain exclusive commercial rights of distribution of any merged products.

Van Den Broek called the leaders' statements political positioning ahead of some sort of public and private sector agreement and said he still believed in the fundamental value of a few leading genomics companies.

"(Today's drop is) an important and valuable wake-up call that this is a highly speculative area," Van Den Broek said.

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