By Paul Elias
AP Biotechnology Writer
Thursday, June 13, 2002; 6:44 AM

TORONTO -- Official delegations trekked from Northern Ireland, Estonia and Taiwan to sell their countries as biotechnology destinations. Italy, Korea and Cuba made similar pitches.

In all, 28 countries and 47 states sent sales officials and scientists to the annual biotechnology conference, BIO 2002, attended by 15,500 biotech professionals this year.

One of the most intriguing delegations came from Saudi Arabia, which has ambitious plans to become the biotechnology capital of the Middle East with its recently launched Jeddah BioCity.

Saudi officials say their biotech program will begin embryonic stem cell research within the next three months.

"Saudi Arabia is not very well known for biotechnology. It is known for oil and energy," said Dr. Sultan Bahabri, chairman of the nascent Jeddah BioCity project. "We believe biotechnology could some day be the new oil of Saudi Arabia. We are very well positioned to lead in biotechnology in our region of the world."

That's an ambitious plan considering Israel's developed biotechnology industry.

Scientists at the Technion-Israel Insitute of Technology in Haifa have derived and maintain four stem cell lines listed on the National Institutes of Health Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry. Only scientists working with the 78 lines in the NIH's registry are eligible for federal grants.

Saudi Arabia qualifies its biotechnology ambitions by stressing they will be fulfilled through an "Islamic point of view," which will limit some of the research.

And its program is very embryonic: even the Web site address it listed on the slick brochures handed out at the conference, which ended Wednesday, said the site was still "under construction."

Bahabri said four scientists will staff the initial Saudi stem cell effort, which could be hampered initially by a lack of vital resources: namely human embryos.

Stem cells are created in the first days of pregnancy and develop into human bodies. Scientists believe they will some day be able to direct embryonic stem cells to grow into replacement tissues and organs.

To obtain the cells, days-old human embryos must be destroyed.

In the United States, as elsewhere, most of the stem cells are derived from unused embryos donated by fertility clinics. At the moment, that's illegal in Saudi Arabia, Bahabri said.

However, Bahabri said he is hopeful that the government will ultimately allow fertility clinics to donate such embryos to stem cell research.

For now, Saudi scientists are limited to searching for stem cells in fetuses aborted for health reasons or miscarriages in the first 120 days of pregnancy. As in the United States, Bahabri said patients' consent must be given to obtain the fetus.

For now, too, Bahabri said cloning to create and destroy and embryo to obtain stem cells is forbidden, although the day could come when Saudi Arabia allows cloning techniques - as yet unknown - to grow tissue and organs without destroying an embryo.

At the same time, Jeddah BioCity also aims to build a plant capable of manufacturing vaccines and is calling for companies around the world to set up shop in the kingdom.

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On the Net:

BIO 2002: http://www.bio.org

© 2002 The Associated Press