'Organize. Align': Women in biotech see Roe v. Wade ruling as a call to action

Julia Owens, Ph.D., marched in pro-choice rallies in high school. Now, she’s CEO of a stealth, Boston-based biotech called Ananke Therapeutics—and she's back again at the forefront of women’s health in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

Owens’ name is among more than 100 on a growing list of women in biotech who signed on to forcefully reject the ruling and decry the attack on reproductive health.

“This letter felt like we were doing something but can only be the first step. It is fascinating to have this stuff come full circle,” Owens said in an interview, thinking back on her high school experience. “I have a 19-year-old daughter and, you know, had to sit down and have some pretty serious conversations with her over the past weeks. I didn't expect to be back here.”

For Grace Colón, Ph.D., CEO of cardiac-focused InCarda Therapeutics, and Sheila Gujrathi, M.D., former CEO of Gossamer Bio, the moment is a call to action for the entire biotech industry on aspects of women’s health and engagement that have long gone unaddressed.

“There are many issues in the world we wish we could address immediately, right? This is a complicated issue. It's not going to be solved overnight, but what we can do is organize. Align,” Colón said in an interview with Fierce Biotech.

Recode, Shehnaaz Suliman
Shehnaaz Suliman, M.D. (ReCode Therapeutics)

The letter itself—forceful, firm and direct in its tone—called for freedom of choice for women and pregnant people including underrepresented minorities and LGBTQIA+ communities. The women wrote that abortion is reproductive health care and called this a “tragic moment in our history.”

“We will not stand by silently. Our voices rise. We strongly dissent,” the women concluded.

It was organized by a group of veteran biotech executives, including ReCode Therapeutics CEO Shehnaaz Suliman, M.D., and Daré Bioscience CEO Sabrina Martucci Johnson. This group came together earlier this year for a retreat in Arizona to foster what they called a “biotech sisterhood” of leading women in the industry for mentorship, camaraderie and networking.

When the Supreme Court handed down its explosive decision in June, a recurring group chat lit up. The letter is the result of the frustration, sadness and urge to do something that sprung from the conversation.

“This gave me a short-term outlet for some of my frustration, because just venting psychologically doesn't help me a whole lot,” Owens said. “I need to feel like I'm doing something, and this letter felt like we were doing something—but can only be the first step.”

Suliman is credited with the first draft, which the group contributed to. But never did the tone waver from the strong result, many of the women said.

“We are at a point in history where we can't pull any punches. We do really need to be very blunt about what we're talking about,” Colón said. “There's a long lack of equality at all levels, and we focused on that, now that we have positions of leadership.”

Posts about the letter on LinkedIn reached 35,000 views as of Wednesday morning, so Owens and her fellow CEOs knew they had struck a chord. Which begs the question: What now? Abortion is not exactly an issue that biotech can affect directly, but there are ways the industry can lead and provide support in this moment, the CEOs said.

“A lot of us who may be somewhat politically active in our personal lives haven't often allowed that to cross significantly over into our professional lives,” Owens said. “I felt there was just too much at stake and this was too important to not speak out, not as Julia and a citizen of our country, but to speak out as a leader in our industry.”

After the letter

Many larger companies in pharma have already announced plans to support employees seeking reproductive care with coverage for out-of-state travel as needed. Biotechs tend to be smaller with fewer resources, but Colón said there’s still plenty  her peers can do. She says now is the time for companies to implement strong family leave policies, ensure access to healthcare and generally encourage policies that allow employees to have a full life outside of work.

“Clearly as private or even early-stage public companies that are not yet profitable, we always need to strike a balance with regards to what we can do financially,” Colón said. But creating a company culture that supports family leave—maternal and paternal—and is open about people’s career goals can go a long way. “We may not have the financial chops to be able to support broad financial initiatives or support at the maximum level we would like, but we can certainly do it with our policies.”

And then there’s equality in the C-suite and boardroom. Women in leadership positions are a clear minority, despite the hundred-plus who signed on to the Roe v. Wade letter. It’s time to ensure that traditionally disenfranchised demographics are given a voice at all levels of a company, Colón said.

Martucci Johnson, Sabrina
Sabrina Martucci Johnson (Daré Bioscience)

Another piece is boosting similar equality in investment and encouraging funding for women’s health care, such as endometriosis, cancers that primarily affect women and more, which have seen chronic under-investment from venture capital firms. This is something that Daré’s Johnson has been outspoken about in her role as CEO of one of the few biotechs working in women’s health.

“We are doing important work and are hopeful that our work will have an important impact, but, frankly, women deserve more from our industry,” Johnson said in an email. “They deserve several if not hundreds of Darés, working to address their most persistent unmet needs, and they deserve multiple healthcare investors speaking up and declaring women’s health as a critical area for healthcare investment and putting their dollars to work to help us accelerate the innovation to market.”

"[Women] deserve several if not hundreds of Daré’s, working to address their most persistent unmet needs." — Sabrina Martucci Johnson, CEO of Daré Bioscience

Johnson said biotechs can bring forward more contraceptive choices with improved performance, side effect profiles and lifestyle integration perspectives. Companies can help improve access to options that already exist and educate women so that they have the facts they need to make choices about their reproductive care.

“If we can’t say 'vagina' without feeling shamed, how can we be effective in providing education and innovation to women?” Johnson wondered. “Women’s health is healthcare, and biotech must play a role in order for women to receive the innovation they deserve and to destigmatize the conversation.”

Denial of care

But there’s another piece to the abortion ruling that has quickly risen, which the women believe is firmly in the biotech and pharma wheelhouse. Women all over the country are reporting restricted access to medications for unrelated conditions, such as methotrexate, simply because the treatments could cause a miscarriage.

“This is now impacting the ability for reproductive-age women to receive care for lots of other conditions,” Owens said. “So to the extent that we're seeking access to care and improvements in human health, this is a big step backwards.”

The industry can push back to educate on the delicate benefit-risk balance that companies try to strike in developing new therapies, according to Gujrathi, a practicing physician herself whose husband is an emergency room physician. She says it’s crucial for doctors to be able to make difficult, complex decisions in life-threatening situations without fear of legal reprisal.

“For me, as a physician, I really always honor the patient's rights to the decisions that they're making about their own bodies,” said Gujrathi, who is board chair for Ventyx Biosciences, ImmPACT Bio and ADARx Pharmaceuticals. “It's really just such a tragedy and a travesty that we're coming to this place. We have to make sure medical providers feel safe and that they can practice the best medical care possible.”

Headshot of Grace Colón
Grace Colón, Ph.D. (Courtesy InCarda)

These benefit-risk profiles are developed with consultation from the FDA and other regulatory and healthcare professionals around the world, Gujrathi said. Perhaps all of these groups could do better to further the understanding that new treatments can have on reproductive health.

Moreover, the Supreme Court’s ruling did not take into account the unintended consequences—like the restriction of medicines for other conditions—which is where medical and pharma professionals can lead.

“We can do more … we think about how to provide healthcare all the time in terms of the way we develop therapeutics and the way we commercialize therapeutics as well as [to] educate and inform healthcare providers about the right way to use our drugs,” Gujrathi said.

"It's really just such a tragedy and a travesty that we're coming to this place. We have to make sure medical providers feel safe and that they can practice the best medical care possible." — Sheila Gujrathi, M.D., former CEO of Gossamer Bio

But this issue is too big for 100 women to solve alone. Gujrathi and the others called on their male peers to step up as well. Colón, who sits on the board of the biotech industry group BIO and is a member of the Latino Corporate Directors Association, says support and voices are needed from across the industry and corporate world. Anyone can push their legislators to advocate for stronger laws to support reproductive health and address the culture and internal policies within their organizations. She said the support from male colleagues has already been “resounding.”

Gujrathi, Colón and Owens aren’t sure exactly what the next immediate step is after the letter. But they certainly aren’t going to quiet down about the issue of abortion anytime soon.

“It's gonna take some more planning and organizing, but I've never met a more determined group of amazing leaders,” Colón said. “And I look forward to many years of collaborating with them on a number of issues that we feel very strongly about.”

Owens, taking a critical look back, wondered whether complacency crept in for women, who assumed there was no way such a fundamental right could be taken away. Our attention was focused on trying to address other issues, and we "kind of let down our guard." 

"This now certainly has been a wake-up call," she said. "And it's a shame that it came to this, but here we are."