St. Louis Character: Dena Ladd keeps the state’s medical research climate comfortable

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St. Louis Character: Dena Ladd keeps the state’s medical research climate comfortable

Oct 13, 2016, 2:30pm CDT St. Louis Business Journal

As executive director for Missouri Cures, a medical research advocacy organization, Dena Ladd works with leading medical researchers throughout the United States. It’s not what she had in mind when she started her career in the fashion industry creating training programs for Christian Dior and traveling between New York and Paris.

The transition began when Ladd wanted to supplement her “glamour job” at Christian Dior with volunteering in the community. She found that her true passion rested community organizations, so she went back to school to study public policy. That decision and subsequent requests from Dr. William Danforth, Sen. Betty Simms and Rep. Emmy McClelland led her to a career in advocating and creating communication networks for medical researchers and patients in Missouri and across the United States.

Ladd has earned the respect of leaders throughout the region for her work, including Danforth who characterized her as, “Very good on the issues and understanding how things work. She is efficient at running a state-wide organization and works well with people. Everyone enjoys working with her.”

Bob O’Loughlin, chairman and CEO of Lodging Hospitality Management, said, “Dena is a smart, compassionate person who cares about saving lives through research with Missouri Cures. I’ve known Dena to be well connected and someone who is well respected in the state of Missouri. I have and will continue to support her in the causes she gets involved with in Missouri.”

Missouri Cures, the 501(c)(4), and the Missouri Cures Education Foundation, the 501(c)(3), have a combined budget of about $800,000. Ladd and Outreach Director Margaret Tollerton are the only employees of the group.

What attracted you to public policy? As I volunteered with various organizations and sat on boards, it seemed like every board I worked with wanted me to head their legislative or advocacy committee. Soon, I was traveling to Jefferson City and Washington, D.C. I was on a board at Children’s Hospital where I was involved in finding money for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Next, I worked with Epworth Children and Family Services. I realized I loved working on children’s issues and discovered that the best way to make positive change is through good public policy.

How would you characterize what you do at Missouri Cures? I would call myself an advocate for medical research. We protect and promote medical research in Missouri. We make sure that researchers in our state can do their work. We want to keep the best and the brightest researchers in Missouri working at our amazing research facilities like Washington University, Saint Louis University, the University of Missouri and the Stowers Institute in Kansas City. It’s an honor to work with researchers and patient advocates who care so deeply about finding cures and therapies for devastating diseases. When I hear about the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network international Alzheimer’s trials at Washington University or the Genome project, I get so excited. There’s so much amazing work going on. As part of our education focus, Missouri Cures keeps updated resources on clinical trial information and researcher profiles on our website at We also send out a newsletter with updates. It’s a great way for people to stay up to date on the latest advances.

What does a normal day look like for you? Every day is different. I might be dealing with a ballot initiative one day, for instance, currently we are working to oppose a tobacco tax initiative on the Missouri ballot that includes anti-research language that has nothing to do with the initiative. The next day I might be looking at the event plans for a clinical trials symposium or the Women in Science and Entrepreneurship Event. I might be meeting with a speaker, looking for sponsors or working with patient advocates.

Your organization was instrumental in keeping stem cell research legal in Missouri. How did you get involved with that? As I was getting involved in my advocacy career, the late Sen. Betty Simms and former Rep. Emmy McClelland approached me and said I should run for office because we needed more women like me in government. Well that really wasn’t on my bucket list, but I had been spending a lot of time in Jefferson City and I decided, “let’s do this.” When running for office, you research the issues and I was shocked to learn that legislators were trying to pass laws that would not only ban stem cell research in Missouri, but would throw doctors and patients in jail for doing research and receiving treatments. I thought that was unbelievable and decided to start talking about stem cell research as part of my platform. This was in 2004. I lost my race, but realized you don’t have to be an elected official to make a difference in public policy. In 2005, Dr. Bill Danforth and the late Jim Stowers, who started the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, co-founded the Missouri Coalition for Life Saving Cures with the purpose of running a campaign in 2006 to protect stem cell research. The campaign manager came to me and asked if I wanted to work on the campaign. I couldn’t say no. In 2006, Missouri Constitutional Amendment 2, the Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, was passed. It was a long and hard-fought battle, but passing the amendment meant that any research that is legal on the federal level is also legal in the state of Missouri. Amendment 2 moved research forward and was a crucial economic development issue in our state. In 2010, the coalition offered me the position of executive director. I couldn’t say no again. One of the first things I did was shorten the name to Missouri Cures. Then in 2011, we added a 501(c)(3) with the goal of educating people around the state on medical research.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments? Advocating for children is always important to me. Also, I was on the committee that started Race for a Cure. I remember being excited that we had 10,000 people at the race the first year. And now it’s like 60,000. I was also the grant chair and worked with people in the community to distribute the money we raised. In St. Louis, I have enjoyed all the boards I’ve been on — they all have such great missions. But now I sit on a national board and I have to say that is something I’m extremely proud of. It’s an international organization called the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine. There are 32 board members, so to be asked to be part of that is quite an honor. What I love most about it is that it gives me the opportunity to be a spokesman for Missouri research. Most of the people on the board are CEOs of companies and they’re located on the coast. I think there are only two of us from the Midwest. So they are always very curious to know what’s going on in Missouri.

How do you decide what organizations you will volunteer with? With my travel and work on the national board, there’s not a lot of extra time, so now what I do is try to support the local organizations that deal with medical research. Hope Happens is one of my favorites. I go to their events and support them however I can. We also promote their events as well as other nonprofits raising money for research in the Missouri Cures newsletter. I’m involved with the BioSTL Coalition, which keeps me in the loop of what’s going on here in St. Louis.

Talk about the WISE conference. I stole that idea from the Salk Institute. That’s a great thing about being involved on the national level. A colleague at the Salk Institute was telling me about the Women and Science event they do. So I thought, “let’s do that in St. Louis.” Then a colleague from BioSTL suggested that we add entrepreneurship to the event. The focus is to bring women together, to network and to discuss issues. At the first conference, we had 300 women and a handful of men show up. After the success of St. Louis, Kansas City wanted one. And we eventually added events in St. Joseph, Springfield and Columbia. There are panels of local speakers and the women in the audience participate in the question and answer session.

What makes a successful advocate? You have to be passionate. Get involved with something that you deeply care about whether it’s children’s issues, medical research or the environment. If you have passion, you will find that you are a natural advocate. Then find a board and get involved. You don’t need a graduate degree in public policy to be an advocate.

Is Missouri a research-friendly state? Yes, because we passed Amendment 2 in 2006, which safeguards all research. That’s why we continue to monitor legislation and that’s why we are fighting this tobacco tax initiative. It’s a tobacco tax increase to help early child education, and I’ve always been a child advocate, but unfortunately they put anti-stem cell research language into the initiative. If it passed, the initiative would also become a constitutional amendment and it would really chip away at what we passed in 2006. So we are a research friendly state, and we work hard to bring companies and researchers here, but if we allow anti-research legislation to pass, it’s going to be tough.