FDA, researchers work to make clinical trials more diverse
Nestled in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, a new mural outside Guadalupe Centers Middle School in Kansas City, Missouri imparts a powerful message: “Clinical Research Needs Representation.” The colorful portraits painted above those words feature four cancer survivors of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Two individuals identify as Hispanic, one as African American and another as Native American.
One of the patients depicted in the mural is Kim Jones, a 51-year-old African American breast cancer survivor since 2012. She advocated for an African American friend who participated in several clinical trials for ovarian cancer. Her friend was diagnosed in an advanced stage at age 26 but lived nine more years, thanks to the trials testing new therapeutics. “They are definitely giving people a longer, extended life and a better quality of life,” said Jones, who owns a nail salon. And that’s the message the mural aims to send to the community: Clinical trials need diverse participants.
While racial and ethnic minority groups represent almost half of the U.S. population, the lack of diversity in clinical trials poses serious challenges. Limited awareness and access impede equitable representation, which is necessary to prove the safety and effectiveness of medical interventions across different groups.
A Yale University study on clinical trial diversity published last year in BMJ Medicine found that while 81 percent of trials testing the new cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 2012 and 2017 included women, only 23 percent included older adults and 5 percent fairly included racial and ethnic minorities. “It’s both a public health and social justice issue,” said Jennifer E. Miller, an associate professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. “We need to know how medicines and vaccines work for all clinically distinct groups, not just healthy young White males.” A recent JAMA Oncology editorial stresses out the need for legislation that would require diversity action plans for certain types of trials.
Ensuring meaningful representation of racial and ethnic minorities in clinical trials for regulated medical products is fundamental to public health.--FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf.
But change is on the horizon. Last April, the FDA issued a new draft guidance encouraging industry to find ways to revamp recruitment into clinical trials. The announcement, which expanded on previous efforts, called for including more participants from underrepresented racial and ethnic segments of the population.
“The U.S. population has become increasingly diverse, and ensuring meaningful representation of racial and ethnic minorities in clinical trials for regulated medical products is fundamental to public health,” FDA commissioner Robert M. Califf, a physician, said in a statement. “Going forward, achieving greater diversity will be a key focus throughout the FDA to facilitate the development of better treatments and better ways to fight diseases that often disproportionately impact diverse communities. This guidance also further demonstrates how we support the Administration’s Cancer Moonshot goal of addressing inequities in cancer care, helping to ensure that every community in America has access to cutting-edge cancer diagnostics, therapeutics and clinical trials.”
Lola Fashoyin-Aje, associate director for Science and Policy to Address Disparities in the Oncology Center of Excellence at the FDA, said that the agency “has long held the view that clinical trial participants should reflect the clinical and demographic characteristics of the patients who will ultimately receive the drug once approved.” However, “numerous studies over many decades” have measured the extent of underrepresentation. One FDA analysis found that the proportion of White patients enrolled in U.S. clinical trials (88 percent) is much higher than their numbers in country's population. Meanwhile, the enrollment of African American and Native Hawaiian/American Indian and Alaskan Native patients is below their national numbers.
The FDA’s guidance is accelerating researchers’ efforts to be more inclusive of diverse groups in clinical trials, said Joyce Sackey, a clinical professor of medicine and associate dean at Stanford School of Medicine. Underrepresentation is “a huge issue,” she noted. Sackey is focusing on this in her role as the inaugural chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer at Stanford Medicine, which encompasses the medical school and two hospitals.
Until the early 1990s, Sackey pointed out, clinical trials were based on research that mainly included men, as investigators were concerned that women could become pregnant, which would affect the results. This has led to some unfortunate consequences, such as indications and dosages for drugs that cause more side effects in women due to biological differences. “We’ve made some progress in including women, but we have a long way to go in including people of different ethnic and racial groups,” she said.
A new mural outside Guadalupe Centers Middle School in Kansas City, Missouri, advocates for increasing diversity in clinical trials. Kim Jones, 51-year-old African American breast cancer survivor, is second on the left.
Artwork by Vania Soto. Photo by Megan Peters.
Among racial and ethnic minorities, distrust of clinical trials is deeply rooted in a history of medical racism. A prime example is the Tuskegee Study, a syphilis research experiment that started in 1932 and spanned 40 years, involving hundreds of Black men with low incomes without their informed consent. They were lured with inducements of free meals, health care and burial stipends to participate in the study undertaken by the U.S. Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
By 1947, scientists had figured out that they could provide penicillin to help patients with syphilis, but leaders of the Tuskegee research failed to offer penicillin to their participants throughout the rest of the study, which lasted until 1972.
Opeyemi Olabisi, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, aims to increase the participation of African Americans in clinical research. As a nephrologist and researcher, he is the principal investigator of a clinical trial focusing on the high rate of kidney disease fueled by two genetic variants of the apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1) gene in people of recent African ancestry. Individuals of this background are four times more likely to develop kidney failure than European Americans, with these two variants accounting for much of the excess risk, Olabisi noted.
The trial is part of an initiative, CARE and JUSTICE for APOL1-Mediated Kidney Disease, through which Olabisi hopes to diversify study participants. “We seek ways to engage African Americans by meeting folks in the community, providing accessible information and addressing structural hindrances that prevent them from participating in clinical trials,” Olabisi said. The researchers go to churches and community organizations to enroll people who do not visit academic medical centers, which typically lead clinical trials. Since last fall, the initiative has screened more than 250 African Americans in North Carolina for the genetic variants, he said.
Other key efforts are underway. “Breaking down barriers, including addressing access, awareness, discrimination and racism, and workforce diversity, are pivotal to increasing clinical trial participation in racial and ethnic minority groups,” said Joshua J. Joseph, assistant professor of medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Along with the university’s colleges of medicine and nursing, researchers at the medical center partnered with the African American Male Wellness Agency, Genentech and Pfizer to host webinars soliciting solutions from almost 450 community members, civic representatives, health care providers, government organizations and biotechnology professionals in 25 states and five countries.
Their findings, published in February in the journal PLOS One, suggested that including incentives or compensation as part of the research budget at the institutional level may help resolve some issues that hinder racial and ethnic minorities from participating in clinical trials. Compared to other groups, more Blacks and Hispanics have jobs in service, production and transportation, the authors note. It can be difficult to get paid leave in these sectors, so employees often can’t join clinical trials during regular business hours. If more leaders of trials offer money for participating, that could make a difference.
Obstacles include geographic access, language and other communications issues, limited awareness of research options, cost and lack of trust.
Christopher Corsico, senior vice president of development at GSK, formerly GlaxoSmithKline, said the pharmaceutical company conducted a 17-year retrospective study on U.S. clinical trial diversity. “We are using epidemiology and patients most impacted by a particular disease as the foundation for all our enrollment guidance, including study diversity plans,” Corsico said. “We are also sharing our results and ideas across the pharmaceutical industry.”
Judy Sewards, vice president and head of clinical trial experience at Pfizer’s headquarters in New York, said the company has committed to achieving racially and ethnically diverse participation at or above U.S. census or disease prevalence levels (as appropriate) in all trials. “Today, barriers to clinical trial participation persist,” Sewards said. She noted that these obstacles include geographic access, language and other communications issues, limited awareness of research options, cost and lack of trust. “Addressing these challenges takes a village. All stakeholders must come together and work collaboratively to increase diversity in clinical trials.”
It takes a village indeed. Hope Krebill, executive director of the Masonic Cancer Alliance, the outreach network of the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City, which commissioned the mural, understood that well. So her team actively worked with their metaphorical “village.” “We partnered with the community to understand their concerns, knowledge and attitudes toward clinical trials and research,” said Krebill. “With that information, we created a clinical trials video and a social media campaign, and finally, the mural to encourage people to consider clinical trials as an option for care.”
Besides its encouraging imagery, the mural will also be informational. It will include a QR code that viewers can scan to find relevant clinical trials in their location, said Vania Soto, a Mexican artist who completed the rendition in late February. “I’m so honored to paint people that are survivors and are living proof that clinical trials worked for them,” she said.
Jones, the cancer survivor depicted in the mural, hopes the image will prompt people to feel more open to partaking in clinical trials. “Hopefully, it will encourage people to inquire about what they can do — how they can participate,” she said.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.