Biotech explores a new frontier

Companies in the sector are embracing the online world in their efforts to better reach patients, investors, and potential partners.

Companies in the sector are embracing the online world in their efforts to better reach patients, investors, and potential partners.

On March 7, a review appeared on discussing the clinical trials of lumiliximab, a drug designed to fight chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). The review was written by Dr. Chaya Venkat, a retired scientist, engineer, and teacher who helped found the Web site following her husband's diagnosis with CLL in summer 2001.

At the end of the review, Venkat writes, "I would jump at the chance to tame the proliferative drive of aggressive CLL and make it a more indolent cancer that allows patients to enjoy longer remissions - by means of a drug that does not carry the penalty of added toxicity."

In the world of cancer treatment, people like Venkat have been gaining influence in recent years. Andrew de Guttadauro, senior director of oncology strategy at Biogen Idec, the company developing lumiliximab, says patients increasingly are informed, proactive, and looking for second opinions from other patients.

And because biotech companies don't have the budget to conduct wide-reaching branding campaigns, online outreach has become an important tool.

In other areas of PR, online outreach is a fairly dated term. But in healthcare, things tend to move a touch slower, with regulatory concerns, delicate patient issues, and conservative communications teams all contributing factors. Because biotech companies are less constrained than the large pharmaceutical companies, they are more likely to adopt new methods of communication - including online outreach.

With lumiliximab, Biogen Idec enlisted Manning Selvage & Lee to help mount its first concerted online outreach effort, targeting bloggers and online discussion sites, as well as distributing information via organizations' e-newsletters and e-mail lists.

Prompted by patients

"There was a little hesitancy in the past. All of these communities are so new, and there wasn't the understanding of how to approach them," says Kelly McKenna, co-director and VP of global health in MS&L's San Francisco office. "It's a patient-driven movement."

Last fall, after Biogen received positive data for the drug's phase I/II, and the antibody was rated a potential best-in-class by JPMorgan, the company hired MS&L to promote the data at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) conference in December. Along with reaching out to the professional trade publications, MS&L began to target online patient communities, hoping to increase awareness about the product.

"At the end of the day, patients are becoming more empowered," says de Guttadauro. "With cancer, it makes especially good sense to do so because there are so many treatments one can choose from. At every stage, you've got a number of treatment options, the oncologist will describe them, and you have to decide what makes the most sense. Our goal is simply to have every patient educated that this is one option they should know about."

Two months after the ASH conference, the company announced the initiation of the registration trial for lumiliximab, providing a timely milestone to touch base with groups and online community leaders yet again. In addition to the discussion on CLLTopics, features showed up on CancerConsultants and CancerFacts.

Along with those sites, the team reached out to advocacy groups to take advantage of their ability to reach large numbers of patients online. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society ran the news in several formats, posting the Reuters coverage from the ASH meeting on its site, highlighting the news in the president's newsletter in the December issue of eNewsline, a free monthly member newsletter, and including coverage in the January e-newsletter, LeukemiaLinks.

"Everyone is realizing this is a credible way to reach the patients - not just pertaining to a particular product, but also trying to establish a brand relationship with the patient," says McKenna. "Biogen has been known in the past for its multiple sclerosis drugs, and now that it's growing, it wants people to know it as an oncology company, as well. This is providing new ways to establish that relationship."

Simplifying the story

While biotech companies utilize online tactics to reach consumers, they're also using the technology to reach investors and potential partners, says David Schull, MD for Noonan Russo.

Noonan Russo has been aiding Menlo Park, CA-based Geron, a leader in the development of human embryonic stem-cell therapies, to produce content to help investors better understand what the company is doing.

"Because the story is complicated and there are different moving parts, and because they are more advanced when it comes to stem-cell product development, we want to be able to color the story with the evidence of Geron's position," says Schull.

He explains that the way in which investors research companies and their technology has fundamentally changed in recent years, shifting emphasis away from traditional investor communications work and toward allowing greater flexibility for the investors.

"Traditionally, the investor communications would center around the corporate presentation at a conference, and we're moving away from that," Schull notes.

Tom Okarma, CEO of Geron, says the online outreach effort is crucial to his company because of both the complicated subject matter and the massive amounts of misinformation regarding embryonic stem-cell research.

The company had animation developed of the results of animals receiving the spinal therapy, animation that the company will be able to show via a revamped Web site and communications effort. Likewise, when Okarma's interview with the late Ed Bradley for 60 Minutes was cut from the show last year, Geron had no way to get it into the public domain.

"We have a very unusual story to tell, and we haven't been telling it very well," says Okarma. "Our hope is that our efforts now will help us catch up and stay slightly ahead of the game."

Online Outreach for Different Audiences

For patients:

Provide clinical data to patient-driven Web sites where free discussion of the results and the therapy can take place, educating patients on the new product

Reach out to relevant foundations, providing the data for their e-newsletters and mass e-mails, reaching a wide audience

Ensure relevant bloggers have access to clinical data

For investors:

Distill complicated information into simple, easy-to-understand content, with easy access for the audience

Increase access to b-roll footage or interviews with executives on your Web site

Enhance graphic content on Web site to complement press coverage for financial publications

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