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Editor’s note: Biotech’s promise has been slow to materialize here

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What’s happened to the region’s biotech industry?

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the epicenter of biology seemed to reside here.

We mapped the human genome in 2001, an accomplishment that was supposed to open the door to a new generation of breakthroughs. It was an audacious feat, led by ambitious men. Craig Venter was one, a maverick biologist with an entrepreneurial streak who continues to push the barriers of the science.

This is a guy who went on to create a synthetic bacteria cell.

Now he’s building a state-of-the-art lab not in Rockville, where his nonprofit research organization is headquartered, but in La Jolla, Calif.

Homegrown biotech companies such as Digene, which developed a diagnostic test for the human papillomavirus, and flu vaccine maker Medimmune once sold for big bucks to big pharmaceutical giants.

Now we have Human Genome Sciences, which in response to a unsolicited bid by GlaxoSmithKline, is threatening to swallow a poison pill.

Not two years ago, there was talk of creating a personalized medicine juggernaut in Northern Virginia. Then Inova pulled out and, poof, the venture was gone.

Perhaps that’s just as well. HGS complains that Glaxo’s offer is far too low to be worthy of consideration. And the personalized medicine initiative would have been an expensive bet.

Yet in our caution, it feels like we have lost our mojo.

I read an interview with Venter in the June issue of Wired magazine. He was asked if the genomics pioneers of old “overpromised and underdelivered.”

“Well, it depends on whose promises you’re talking about,” Venter responded. “Some people were saying that 10 years out we’d have every disease cured. I think that was overpromising. I always said it was a race to the starting line. Once we got the first genome, that’s when genomics would really start.”

If that’s true, the gun went off, but the race has moved elsewhere.

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