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Cash-strapped stem cell agency reaching out

An illustration of stem cells in mitosis. (Image via Shutterstock)

Stem cell researchers rarely have a chance to talk directly about their work to thousands of people at a time, including those in the farthest reaches of the globe.

But Jeanne Loring at the Scripps Research Institute did it last week. The California stem cell agency did it last month with Stanford researcher Gary Steinberg.  And it could well be that the technique that they used will emerge as a critical tool in the effort to stave off the death of the $3 billion, stem cell program. The end could come as early as 2020 if agency supporters fail that year to win voter approval of $5 billion more for the program.

The medium in use by Loring and the agency is something called “Facebook Live.”  It is a live streaming service that allows viewers to ask questions and comment during a webcast conducted by researchers or stem cell research advocates.  It is considerably more compelling than pre-recorded videos, says Forbes magazine, which reports that presentations on Facebook Live are viewed for three times as long as a static video. The thinking is that the interactive connection and the initial live presentation — with its informality, spontaneity and lack of predictability —  are more interesting than your usual, pre-recorded sessions.

Facebook Live has been around since 2016.  but has rolled out slowly. According to a Google search this past weekend, only a handful of stem cell-connected enterprises have taken advantage of it. (See a few below.)

Viral boost for the California stem cell message
In its presentation last month, the stem cell agency started off with about 80 viewers. By the time of this writing,  the number of views of the video had skyrocketed to more than 6,800. Loring’s presentation now stands at 1,600. Her number grew by 100 as this article was being written. That viral strength likely surpasses many static offerings in print coverage or conventional electronic news, which are largely onetime shots.

(The agency, on the morning following this posting, filed an item on its blog, hailing the success of the program. The item said, “We had an amazing response from people during the event and in the days since then with some 6,750 people watching the video and almost 1,000 people reacting by posting a comment or sharing it with friends. It was one of the most successful things we have ever done on Facebook so it’s not surprising that we plan on doing many more Facebook Live ‘Ask the Expert’ events in the future.”)One might ask: Why is the impact of this single Facebook event important in terms of a stem cell ballot campaign?In recent years, the stem cell agency has slipped out of the public eye and is hard-pressed to attract widespread media attention, a situation that is commonplace for most state government departments. The agency’s “value proposition” is not well understood, say officials at the agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

To win approval of a proposed $5 billion bond measure in November 2020, however, CIRM will need strong support for its efforts, which have so far failed to deliver on the public’s expectations that miraculous stem cell therapies are right around the corner. Those hopes were raised more than 13 years ago during the campaign that created the stem cell agency. Today its funds are running out. Cash for new awards is  expected to vanish by the end of next year.

Selling hope to California families
Nonetheless, one of CIRM’s notable products is hope — not to mention 49 clinical trials that could lead to therapies for deadly diseases and widespread afflictions ranging from cancer to urinary incontinence.In 2004, backers of the stem cell ballot measure declared that “medical problems that could benefit from stem cell research affect 128 million Americans including a child or adult in nearly half of all California families.”Reaching those California families is the key to unlocking their votes on behalf of the stem cell program. Facebook — notably and coincidentally — reaches nearly half of the Internet users  in California.

Using Facebook Live, or rival services, may well be the most effective way to connect with those important voters, especially with the help of the patient advocates who have been heavily involved with the agency. They bring the personal stories that resonate with voters and create an emotional appeal that is likely to trigger a favorable vote for more billions.More services like Facebook Live will probably arise in the next 12 months. But Facebook has an advantage: the huge number of its users and an established Internet base that includes the patient advocate community and its organizations.

Writing on Forbes about business applications of Facebook Live, Steve Olenski said,  “Live video comes with a generous helping of transparency. Your influencer’s voice will ring truer in a live conversation with fans than it does in a blog post. Viewers can engage with your product or service and the influencer in open conversation handled in real time. If you’re looking for a compelling way to build trust with your audience, a live video is a great place to start.”
Here are links to a few Facebook Live events involving stem cell-related matters: Difference between gene therapy and stem cell therapyCAR T-Cell Therapy for Non-Hodgkin LymphomaGene Therapy for Sickle Cell Disease.

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