With the biotechnology industry gathered in San Francisco last week for its annual conference, public acceptance issues were at the forefront of the discussion, with industry pioneers urging scientists to play a more active role in sharing knowledge with the public and warning that new biotechnology developments would mean greater regulatory challenges.

At the same time, two leading public relations firms unveiled new research underscoring the economic benefits of biotech in the United States and revealing strong public support for research using human stem cells¡Xone of the most contentious issues for the industry.

Fleishman-Hillard partnered with the Biotechnology Industry Organization (hosts of the BIO 2004 conference) and Battelle Memorial Institute to produce the largest economic assessment of the life sciences industry ever conducted in the United States.

The report showed that employment and other economic activity in the biosciences has grown dramatically in the past three years, and states working to attract bioscience companies are learning that success means specializing in specific sub-sectors.

¡§Unlike previous biotechnology industry reports, the BIO-Battelle/Fleishman-Hillard 2004 study examines the life sciences industry as a whole and, for the first time, will quantify the industry¡¦s contribution to our economic growth,¡¨ said Paul Laland, senior vice president and partner in Fleishman-Hillard¡¦s San Francisco office. ¡§The report looks at the size of the industry and the concentration of biotechnology initiatives across the country.  This update will be of tremendous value to state and regional economic development agencies as they implement R&D investments.¡¨

In 2004, 40 states specifically target the biosciences for development and all 50 states have economic development initiatives available to assist bioscience companies, according to the report. Investments have grown¡Xas much as $500 million in Florida¡Xand experimental approaches, such as tax credits to encourage investment in private venture capital funds, have also increased significantly.

More than 885,000 people in the United States are employed in the biosciences. The largest segment of this group is working in the areas of medical devices and equipment, which accounts for 37 percent of bioscience employment.

Factors that appear to influence a state¡¦s ability to grow bioscience employment include the degree of involvement by research institutions, available capital, access to facilities and equipment, a stable and supportive tax and regulatory environment and a long-term perspective. That long-term perspective is reflected in every state¡¦s renewed emphasis on science and math education, including programs throughout the K-12 school years aimed at preparing students for bioscience careers.

¡§Biotechnology is a great business opportunity for us,¡¨ says Laland. ¡§Our recent growth in such key biotech markets as San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston, as well as our continued expansion in markets like New York, St. Louis, and Kansas City, are enabling our firm to meet the needs of emerging and established biotech companies nationwide.¡¨

Meanwhile, a study conducted by Weber Shandwick Worldwide¡¦s KRC Research unit found strong support for stem cell research, but with significant divisions between those who approach the issue from a religious perspective and those whose primary focus is on healthcare.

While 72 percent of consumers who consider stem cell research mainly in the context of health and safety approve of it, only 34 percent of those who view the issue primarily from a religious perspective approve of stem cell research, according to the survey. And while 58 percent of American consumers say they approve of stem cell research, 62 percent believe it raises moral and ethical concerns.

¡§In politics today, we hear a lot about ¡¥the two Americas,¡¦ the ¡¥red states and the blue states,¡¦¡¨ says Jennifer Sosin, president of KRC Research. ¡§This divide is evident in how Americans think about
science as well. Whether consumers approve or disapprove of various aspects of biotechnology is closely associated with whether they think about science in terms of religion and morals, or from a health and safety perspective.¡¨

Other findings from the study:
„X 86 percent of biologists approve of stem cell research, compared to only 58 percent of consumers.
„X Equal proportions of biologists and consumers say that stem cell research raises moral and ethical questions (just over 60 percent), but 29 percent of consumers say stem cell research raises ¡§serious¡¨ moral and ethical questions, compared to 18 percent of biologists.
„X Only 9 percent of consumers say they are ¡§very informed¡¨ about the intended purposes of stem cell research, compared to 46 percent of biologists.
„X A majority of consumers (58 percent) say they follow news reports about developments in science ¡§very closely¡¨ or ¡§somewhat closely.¡¨ These consumers approve of stem cell research by a margin of 64 percent to 19 percent; those who follow news about science less closely approve of stem cell research by the narrower margin of 48 percent to 27 percent.

(The study was conducted in May, before the recent death of former President Ronald Reagan. Reagan¡¦s death may focus attention on the stem cell issue, given his family¡¦s support for research they believe could have helped Reagan and could still help those suffering from Alzheimer¡¦s and other medical conditions.)

Says Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick, ¡§The challenge for those looking to advance biotechnology is that they must take into account the ethical and moral prism through which American consumers view scientific progress. Extraordinary medical discoveries may be possible, but only if they are widely understood and supported by the general public.¡¨ said Jack Leslie, chairman, Weber Shandwick.

That point was echoed during the conference by Dr. Leroy Hood, recipient of the Biotechnology Heritage Award presented during the conference.

Hood predicted that within 10 years, nanotools will allow an individual¡¦s genome to be sequenced in less than half an hour at a cost of under $1,000 and that eventually handheld devices will perform many of the functions of the standard annual check-up with a physician, only with higher sensitivity. Such devices will prick a person¡¦s thumb and subject a drop of blood to ¡§dozens of measurements¡¨ that would then be transmitted to a physician.

But he warned that public acceptance would be key. ¡§As we see the protesters, we must be forced to recognize how remiss we have been in taking science to the public,¡¨ he told attendees. Until recently, scientists¡¦ major role was to simply acquire knowledge, he said. Now, it must also be to transfer knowledge to society.

However, starting constructive conversations is hampered by ¡§the enormous polarization in the country,¡¨ and in particular by the ¡§lack of middle ground makes a rational discussion of stem cells impossible.¡¨