By Tracee Davis | The Sheridan Press

SHERIDAN — Last week’s Biotech Conference at Sheridan College brought in world-renowned experts in the area of biological law and policy to provide an overview of emerging issues in genetic engineering. Dr. Harvey Blackburn, coordinator of the National Animal Germplasm Program for the Department of Agriculture, introduced concepts from Nagoya Protocol of the international Convention on Biological Diversity to a small audience of scientists and entrepreneurs. The protocol, which will be accepted by many U.S. trading partners, establishes guidelines for developers who trade, and possibly modify, genetic information.

Blackburn said the protocol sets up a code of ethics for genetic business opportunities.

“There is a perception by some countries that the developed world uses genetic resources without giving out a fair share of revenue,” Blackburn explained. The Nagoya Protocol, named after the Japanese city where the guidelines were established for world trade, calls for complete disclosure of intended uses of genetic information, like plants or livestock, before the resources leave its country of origin. From there, provisions for benefit sharing extend into infinite future generations. While approximately 20 countries have accepted the protocol, the United States has not. Blackburn said natural variations in expression of genes, called genetic drift, frequently cause a sample population to yield a markedly different species within relatively few generations. He said the Nagoya Protocol provides for royalty payments back to a host country even when significant, planned scientific investment has created an essentially different life form than what was initially taken. “The issue we have with all this is these policy initiatives are so broad and they have not considered many types of specifics in their formulation,” Blackburn said. Blackburn said the protocol could cause increased transaction costs and a reduction in the flow of genetic resources between countries.

Dr. Eric Welch, director of science technology and environmental policy at the University of Chicago, said the potential chilling effect on genetic research implemented by the protocol is an obstacle to genetic innovation. “What you need are ‘weak ties,’” he said. “People with unusual sources, unusual data, different material, stuff that isn’t in your close, trusted tie network.” “These constraints are affecting the strategy of collaboration of our scientists,” Welsh said, who added most sharing of genetic data happens via informal means within the U.S. The sharing and discussion of global policies was hosted at Sheridan College in an initiative by Forward Sheridan to raise awareness about what Sheridan has to offer biotechnology-based businesses looking to relocate.


Counseling via video teleconference

SHERIDAN — The word “biotechnology” often conjures up images of science fiction novels, or at least mysterious genetically modified pets and plants to many non-scientists. However, the word can also apply to the idea of using technology to facilitate established procedures and treatments. Case in point: psychological counseling via video teleconference. Dr. Phil Hirsch has practiced psychology for more than 30 years and now serves as Chief Clinical Officer for HealthLinkNow, a company that specializes in offering online health care technology services. For Hirsch, biotechnology simply means using video teleconferencing to provide counseling to patients who could be hundreds of miles away. Locally, the Healthy Lifestyle Clinic in Sheridan is the only venue to offer psychological therapy via Web conference. Family Nurse Practitioner Brenda Mosher said people are usually slow to accept the idea of Web-based counseling.

Upon initial consideration, the idea of contacting a professional counselor via Skype or FaceTime might seem like another impersonal substitute for actual human-to-human interaction. “We call it the ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ phenomenon when we begin talking to people about delivering any behavioral health service — whether it’s psychiatry, pharmacology, or whether its counseling or psychotherapy,” Hirsch said.

However, he said, that doesn’t last long before the real benefits become apparent.

“What we tend to see experientially is even people who are a little reluctant or a little bit skeptical, that you can establish the rapport necessary.That reluctance tends to go away within the first 30 or 45 minutes of the initial interview,” Hirsch said. He added that more than 450 studies published in scientific journals attests to the efficacy of telemedicine for a psychology practice. Ultimately, the use of Internet conferencing puts rural clients within reach of professionals who can give them the help they need.

“For people in communities like Sheridan, where there’s a less than full supply of mental health professionals, where somebody might have to travel and hour or two or three hours to see a psychiatrist in person, their satisfaction with the telepsychiatry modality is higher because they avoid the travel strain. “Mosher added that using video conferencing may be the more attractive choice for a patient looking for privacy in a small town. “Sometimes, people won’t go to counseling services because they know the counselor,” she said. “The may be on the same golf team or something and prefer not to go to someone they know socially. This allows the option of a little more anonymity.” Hirsch was one of the speakers at the Forward Sheridan Biotech Conference last week.


Recruitment Key part of event

SHERIDAN — Last week, Sheridan hosted a small, diverse group of scientists, entrepreneurs and policy makers who discussed a range of topics related to biotechnology.  An initiative of Forward Sheridan, the annual Biotech Conference is targeted to bring fresh faces to town and provide a unique opportunity for intellectual conversations between experts of different disciplines, but also to lay the groundwork for business recruitment.

“The reason we pull (bioscience experts) into these kinds of conferences is so our community can explore the possibility of diversifying our economy and attracting those industries to Sheridan,” said Amy Erickson, dean of science, math, agriculture and  zulinary arts at Sheridan College. “That’s our not-really-secret goal here.”

Economist with the University of Wyoming, Dr. Anne Alexander, explained that Wyoming’s fossil fuel economy can serve as both an asset and a liability. She said the main cornerstones of Wyoming’s economy are agriculture, tourism and energy. “It would be good to not have all the burden on economic development on just a couple of industries’ shoulders,” she said, indicating a safer strategic bet for the state involves moving away from a heavy focus on just a few sectors of the economy and finding other ways to take advantage of Wyoming’s other inherent resources. That’s where biosciences come in. Alexander said traditionally, Wyoming’s strong university presence in every county coupled with available land and human capitol have generated success where biotech-related companies have taken off. A prime example, she explained, is the utilization of “Roundup Ready” sugar beets, which have proven to be a profitable endeavor for farmers in the state. Currently, bioscientists with the UW extension office in Sheridan are working on a genetically modified grape that can withstand Wyoming’s alkaline soil and cold weather. Plans are the new plant could be used for land reclamation. Alexander said biosciences in the state are struggling because many young career seekers choose other avenues. “The constant struggle we’re always having in Wyoming is kids can graduate from high school, go out and work in an oil field and make a lot of money, but then they don’t have an education once that’s over,” Alexander said. “That’s a very high risk occupation. If they get hurt, they can’t make money anymore.” Alexander said biological science workers are sorely needed for economic diversity within the state, and potential earnings of bioscience technicians compete with traditional jobs in the energy industry, which contributes $5.3 billion per year to the state’s economy in terms of wages.”The average wage of a person in biosciences in Wyoming is almost the same as a roughneck, which is good,” she said. “At the very least, we want them to think of being scientifically literate as a good thing and we want them to think about bioscience as an alternative, maybe as fallback.”

Alexander said no industry is likely to rival oil and natural gas as revenue generators for the state. But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for other industries in the economy.

“Oil and natural gas, while they have contributed and will continue to contribute greatly to our economic structure, our tax base, our economy, they are more volatile because they are export driven. Biosciences have some international aspects to it, but it’s not necessarily as volatile,” she said. Alexander pointed out that while Wyoming was only mildly affected by the Great Recession when compared to other states, fields related to biosciences within the state showed steady growth despite an unstable economy.