PHILADELPHIA - Everybody has a cause - some just articulate it better than others.
The public image of biotechnology is an issue concerning industry executives who constantly find themselves defending their work. Too often the public assumes the worst, they say, equating them to mad scientists.
The frustration bounced from one room to the next at the Biotechnology Industry Organization's 2005 annual convention in Philadelphia this week. Biotech leaders echoed the problem - the industry does not communicate well with the public, and the public lacks not only knowledge, but also respect from the industry.
Case in point: It has been seven years since the first human embryonic stem cell lines were established, yet the ethical debate still continues.
"Stem cells are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the issues we are going to struggle with," said Greg Lucier, CEO of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Invitrogen Corp., who spoke at Tuesday's plenary breakfast.
The implications of market withdrawals of drugs such as Tysabri and Vioxx have spread far and wide, putting more pressure on the industry to minimize side effects or at least be able to identify at-risk patients. Industry leaders have learned that direct-to-consumer advertising can sometimes backfire, particularly if they do not stress adverse events. On top of that, Americans complain about the costs of drugs and view the industry as greedy.
"We do need to explain why drugs are expensive and, more importantly, why drugs are priced differently in other parts of the world," Robert Ruffolo, the president of Madison, N.J.-based Wyeth, said at Monday's plenary luncheon.
The general public simply does not know enough about the industry. They see the protesters, who were expected to march on Tuesday evening toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a gala reception for BIO 2005 participants was held. Most people know stem cells, genetically modified foods and other industry products are controversial, but that is where their knowledge about biotech ends
So what should the industry do?
One solution is to follow the lead of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MBC), which has started a program called BioTeach. Through a $9 million capital campaign, it aims to have biotechnology taught in every Massachusetts high school by 2010. Under the plan, each of the state's 358 public high schools will receive teacher professional development and up to $14,000 in new lab equipment and supplies.
Not only will BioTeach educate youth about the industry, but it will fulfill a different pressing need of biotech companies.
"We face some serious challenges," said Cora Beth Abel, director of education for MBC, who spoke in a Tuesday session. "We cannot find enough qualified workers."
In an attempt to bridge that gap, Paul Hanle, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Biotechnology Institute, said companies such as South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc. are working with community colleges to devise programs that will generate a skilled biotech work force.
But a number of protesters and members of the general public, who are not of school age, also need to be reached. They are voters and can influence public policy more than America's youth.
Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics & Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University's Berman Bioethics Institute, believes that people want to be respected, not simply educated. She held a series of online and in-person focus groups, as well as town meetings, to measure public attitudes toward reproductive genetics. By having that type of dialogue, people learn more about the issues, but they don't necessarily change their views, she said.
Nevertheless, these endeavors to educate - or discuss the issues - gain mainstream media coverage and help to put the industry in a more positive light. Those are the kinds of stories industry executives want to see, they say, not sensationalized headlines about the hazards of all COX-2 inhibitors because of the market withdrawal of Vioxx.
Still, there is a strong need to communicate with reporters regarding negative news, to make sure they do not ignore the benefits of a drug. They also need to know that the identification of a gene connected to cystic fibrosis is not "a cure," said Peter Corr, senior vice president of science and technology at New York-based Pfizer Inc.
"We only know a small part about biology and disease," Corr said at Monday's luncheon. "There are a lot of unknowns. It's a high-risk game and I think it deserves high rewards for success."
Ruffolo agreed, saying that the U.S. represents the only free market in the world, and that other countries force "artificially low" prices on drugs. People don't see "what it actually takes to go from an idea in a laboratory to a product," Corr said.
The public tends to focus on the risks associated with marketed drugs - small risks, not unlike those signed up for when "you choose to drive your car," Ruffolo said.
The truth is there have been no more drug withdrawals this year than previous years. What has changed, Ruffolo said, is "when they're withdrawn. They're withdrawn sooner than they used to be."
The industry is working with the FDA on post-market surveillance, looking for early warning signs of problems that did not appear in clinical trial analyses. Similar efforts may help to build public trust, but biotech leaders still need to convince investors to have a long-term outlook for the industry.
The science takes time, said Paul Berg, director emeritus of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine at Stanford University.
About 20 years ago, Hodgkin's disease killed most of its victims, whereas today it has a 90 percent to 95 percent cure rate, Berg said. Many of the cancer drugs today are not cures, but they are small steps in that direction.
"They're being approved," Berg said, "because they're extending life by four months. As a scientist, I say, we've got to do a lot better than that."