Retiring BresaGen CEO reflects on 15 years at the cutting edge

By Graeme O'Neill
Monday, 25 November, 2002

As CEO of Adelaide's BresaGen, Dr John Smeaton is no doubt familiar with the ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times".

Smeaton, who announced last week that he plans to retire as CEO, probably in the first half of the new year, has experienced some interesting times during his nearly 15 years at the helm. Controversy seems to swirl around the company.

In 1987 Adelaide company Metro Meats sparked a media firestorm when it sold pork to Adelaide butchers from BresaGen's project to develop 'lean cuisine' transgenic pigs.

BresaGen's research portfolio extends to xenotransplantation of humanised pig organs into humans, animal cloning and human embryonic stem cells -- all guaranteed to provoke passion in the press, and in politics.

But the 'mutant meat' cloud had a silver lining, said Smeaton. The Australian Taxation Office launched a test case against BresaGen - and lost -- over the eligibility of syndication funds for tax deductibility, alleging there was no chance that meat from the company's transgenic pig project would ever be approved for public sale.

"The fact that we had permission to sell the meat, from the NHRMC food standards committee, the predecessor to the Australia New Zealand Food Authority, weighed heavily in our favour," Smeaton said.

While a major overseas pig producer has contracted BresaGen to continue its transgenic pig research, Smeaton said the company's principal interest was in cloning the best quality transgenic pigs and "moving the genetics down" to breeders through conventional breeding.

"Our work in xenotransplantation is being done under the auspices of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, which is looking at pancreatic tissue transplants to treat diabetes," he said.

But Smeaton said that a simple change to the organ-donor system, so that doctors had the right to harvest organs unless potential donors or their families stipulated otherwise, would dramatically change the supply of vital organs like kidneys, livers, lungs and hearts, making pig organ transplants unnecessary.

In the field of embryonic stem-cell research, BresaGen did not want to get involved in growing human organs from stem cells -- that prospect was still a long way off, Smeaton said.

But he said personal attacks on scientists by politicians with strong religious views on the use of embryonic stem cells were "disgraceful". BresaGen board member Geoff Vaughan was criticised, by name, during an attack on ES cell research by Senator Ron Boswell on TV current affairs last week.

Smeaton said some politicians were grossly abusing parliamentary privilege to smear scientists and others involved in stem cell research.

A fundamental obstacle to the success of Australia's biotechnology industry was companies' inability to raise critical amounts of cash to take products to the market, he said.

"One of the biggest disappointments in my time in the industry was the failure of Biota's influenza drug, Relenza," he said. "It didn't work as well as people expected -- if it had been a blockbuster success, it would have done major things for investor confidence in the biotech industry."

He also said academic researchers in Australia needed to pursue their science more rigorously before attempting to commercialise it -- "Some developments get out too early, and tend to be overvalued."

The Australian government -- "far and away the biggest customer for therapeutic drugs" -- could boost the industry by offering small companies manufacturing contracts to help them get off the ground.

Smeaton said he would probably continue to serve on BresaGen's board for a time, and would take on some consultancy work -- but after the intensive negotiations and gruelling travel involved in obtaining valuable stem cell patents for BresaGen, he plans to pursue a quieter life -- in an ancient biotechnology industry.

After spending the past two years in the US, he will return home to Adelaide, where he plans to retreat to his small vineyard in the Adelaide Hills.

Recently, the winemaker Petaluma won first prize for a single-vineyard Forreston Viognier white wine, made from grapes grown on Smeaton's vineyard.

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