The stem-cell debate

Biotech companies are reaching out to both investors and legislators.

Biotech companies are reaching out to both investors and legislators.

The legislative debate over embryonic stem-cell research is arguably the most significant public policy issue to impact the scientific community in years.

And for the biotech companies, academic institutions, patient advocates, and PR and public affairs agencies engaged in this area, there is a growing recognition that Washington must be a primary audience for communications.

"Stem-cell research is at a very important juncture. Public policy is an integral part of the science," says Paul Costello, executive director of communications and public affairs at the Stanford University School of Medicine. "Everyone believes in the promise and the hope, but delivering on that takes time."

The question is, who should lead these public affairs efforts?

Dan Eramian, communications VP at trade group Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), notes that there is only a "very small" number of companies currently engaged in embryonic stem-cell research, and most of them are too small to even have PR support.

Like most biotech companies, the first and most important audience is the investor community, he adds. "Most of the [lobbying] work has been done by BIO and some patient groups," he says.

In August 2001, President Bush imposed strict limitations on federal support of embryonic stem-cell research, restricting it to existing stem-cell lines that meet certain criteria.

BIO's current focus is directed at loosening those restrictions through the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which passed in the House of Representatives, but still needs to make its way through the Senate. Bush has said that he will veto the bill.

"We have to make sure that the policy continues to encourage innovation and reward innovation," says Eramian, who oversees the public affairs staff at BIO. "That has basically been our message, about the research and the hope."

He notes that BIO has been engaged in grassroots level lobbying, as well as extensive media relations.

Adding corporate voices

Theresa Kennedy, director of the North American life sciences practice at Hill & Knowlton, notes that biotech companies often assume that they should abstain from the public debate until they have a product on the market.

One reason is that, although most companies align their PR and IR capabilities, government relations is typically a separate function.

"The more mature companies ... and those that have gone through the complete product life cycle understand the need for government relations," she says. But all companies "need to be considering government as one of the key stakeholders. You should be talking to everyone who should have an opinion."

She notes that it's important for companies to be clear and precise about the types of research they're doing and what is the endpoint. And because embryonic stem-cell companies are still far from having a marketable product, they should keep the focus on their track record and capabilities.

"Rather than tell a story ... you need to talk about attributes," Kennedy says. "It's much more credible."

Steve Cragle, SVP at Dorland Global Health, also emphasizes that messages must be scientific, not emotional. An effective lobbying campaign requires playing up the potential of the research, but those messages could seed investors with false expectations.

"It's very difficult, from a corporate point of view, to advocate for [federally funded] research," he says, adding that patient groups - like Dorland client the Alzheimer's Association - should be the ones taking the promise message to the Hill.

But Tony Russo, CEO of Euro RSCG Life Public Relations, notes that there are several ways a company can add its voice to policy issues. These include media relations, work with activist groups to coordinate messages, or involvement with trade groups.

He recalls working with an organization that gathered signatures from 81 Nobel laureates in support of stem-cell research. "This is one area where it's more than just activist groups," he says. "More and more, government and public affairs are integrated because it's really at the level where you can have your voice heard and influence policy."

Shifts in public policy influence communications directed not only at government audiences, but also at all other internal and external stakeholders.

The importance of the investment community cannot be overstated, and, in the area of stem-cell research, shareholders and venture capitalists are often wary of how long they will have to wait for a return on their investment. Stem-cell therapies are still years, and perhaps decades, away from turning a profit.

Moreover, biotech companies do rely on state and federal grants in addition to private capital. The government's bio-defense programs, for instance, have been a boon to companies specializing in smallpox and anthrax vaccines.

"Policy very much influences the private environment. As a group, [investors] tend to shy away from an area where funding can be cut," Russo says. "Whether we're talking with the media, or whether we're talking with a group of company heads, we still have to think of the government as an audience."

Eramian also acknowledges that the lack of public support for stem-cell research can raise a red flag for investors. "What goes on in DC can be a black box," he says. "Investors are a lot more critical than they were 20 years ago."

Cragle notes that companies must communicate about the tangible milestones they reach, and not speculate too much on which diseases stem cells will eventually treat. "It's not going to be enough to have an advocacy group screaming and yelling that we need more treatment," he says.

Outreach from scientists

Internal communications are also critical to buoy the scientists engaged in stem-cell research. At Stanford's School of Medicine, a weekly newspaper and a full-time science writer help explain the nuances of policy issues on the state and national levels.

"We have to go on as an institution believing that funding will be there," says Costello. "Our scientists have to be focused on their work and not let the public policy debate move them."

In addition, Costello notes that many Stanford researchers believe that it is their duty to publicly support stem-cell research, and the university has encouraged them to do so. Even though Proposition 71 has opened the door for embryonic stem-cell research in California, Stanford researchers are also trying to support their colleagues in other states.

"The most powerful voices to the general audiences are research scientists, [then] patient advocates," he says. "What they talk about is the promise of this research. But they're also realistic."

Jeff Warsh, VP of external affairs at the New Jersey Stem Cell Research & Education Foundation (NJSCREF), notes that the nonprofit group is working with both corporate and advocacy groups to promote stem-cell therapies.

But, he adds, "Our most outspoken partners are the patients themselves. The most credible messengers are the people who are receiving therapy and the people who desire therapy."

NJSCREF is working with government affairs firm MBI-Gluckshaw, but Warsh, who is also a partner at the agency, notes that lobbying has not been a part of the outreach effort. "This is a very progressive state that's in favor of stem-cell research," he says.

Many experts note the fact that there is wide, bipartisan support for stem-cell research among the general public - even if some confusion exists about the different types of stem cells, whether adult, embryonic, or cord blood.

An August 2004 Harris Interactive poll found a significant rise in the number of respondents on both ends of the political spectrum who support stem-cell research. The increase represented a jump to 73% in 2004, from 61% in 2001. In addition, the number of respondents who said that stem-cell research is "unethical and immoral" fell to 15% in 2004, from 32% in 2001.

Nevertheless, Russo suggests that stem-cell research companies are navigating the policy terrain on their own because most biotech and pharma companies have chosen to stay out of a controversial debate that doesn't directly impact their business objectives. But Russo, who has represented clients in stem-cell research since the early 1990s, notes that it's important to keep the debate in perspective.

"If you believe in what you're doing and you believe in the science," he says, "you must believe that ... the government will come around."

The many faces of the debate

Key messages from the major players:

Jim Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization: "We must do all we can to accelerate the research and ensure that all avenues of therapeutic possibilities are explored to their fullest. We can do nothing less for the patients and families who are waiting and hoping."

President Bush: "Every embryo is unique and genetically complete, like every other human being. And each of us started out our life this way. These lives are not raw material to be exploited, but gifts."

Statement from the American Life League: "[The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act] approves the killing of innocent preborn babies for the sake of harvesting their body parts - their stem cells."

Statement from the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research: "Stem cells come from excess fertilized eggs stored in freezers at in-vitro fertility clinics. Nearly half of infertile couples say they would like to see some good come from their excess eggs. Polls show a majority of Bush voters support expanding the current federal policy."

Institute of Medicine report: "Stem-cell research centers should adhere to a standardized set of ethical guidelines. Oversight committees representing the scientific, legal, and ethical communities, as well as the public, should enforce these guidelines."

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