After years of suffering from mysterious symptoms, my mother Janice Thomas finally found a doctor who correctly diagnosed her with two autoimmune diseases, Lupus and Sjogren's. Both diseases are more prevalent in the black population than in other races and are often misdiagnosed.
The National Institutes of Health has found that minorities make up less than 10 percent of trial participants.
Like many chronic health conditions, a lack of understanding persists about their causes, individual manifestations, and best treatment strategies.
On the search for relief from chronic pain, my mother started researching options and decided to participate in clinical trials as a way to gain much-needed insights. In return, she received discounted medical testing and has played an active role in finding answers for all.
"When my doctor told me I could get financial or medical benefits from participating in clinical trials for the same test I was already doing, I figured it would be an easy way to get some answers at little to no cost," she says.
As a person of color, her presence in clinical studies is rare. The National Institutes of Health has found that minorities make up less than 10 percent of trial participants.
Without trial participation that is reflective of the general population, pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals are left guessing how various drugs work across racial lines. For example, albuterol, a widely used asthma treatment, was found to have decreased effectiveness for black American and Puerto Rican children. Many high mortality conditions, like cancer, also show different outcomes based on race.
Over the last decade, the pervasive lack of representation has left communities of color demanding higher levels of involvement in the research process. However, no consensus yet exists on how best to achieve this.
But experts suggest that before we can improve black participation in medical studies, key misconceptions must be addressed, such as the false assumption that such patients are unwilling to participate because they distrust scientists.
Jill A. Fisher, a professor in the Center for Bioethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, learned in one study that mistrust wasn't the main barrier for black Americans. "There is a lot of evidence that researchers' recruitment of black Americans is generally poorly done, with many black patients simply not asked," Fisher says. "Moreover, the underrepresentation of black Americans is primarily true for efficacy trials - those testing whether an investigational drug might therapeutically benefit patients with specific illnesses."
Without increased minority participation, research will not accurately reflect the diversity of the general population.
Dr. Joyce Balls-Berry, a psychiatric epidemiologist and health educator, agrees that black Americans are often overlooked in the process. One study she conducted found that "enrollment of minorities in clinical trials meant using a variety of culturally appropriate strategies to engage participants," she explained.
To overcome this hurdle, The National Black Church Initiative (NBCI), a faith-based organization made up of 34,000 churches and over 15.7 million African Americans, last year urged the Food and Drug Administration to mandate diversity in all clinical trials before approving a drug or device. However, the FDA declined to implement the mandate, declaring that they don't have the authority to regulate diversity in clinical trials.
"African Americans have not been successfully incorporated into the advancement of medicine and research technologies as legitimate and natural born citizens of this country," admonishes NBCI's president Rev. Anthony Evans.
His words conjure a reminder of the medical system's insidious history for people of color. The most infamous incident is the Tuskegee syphilis scandal, in which white government doctors perpetrated harmful experiments on hundreds of unsuspecting black men for forty years, until the research was shut down in the early 1970s.
Today, in the second decade of twenty-first century, the pernicious narrative that blacks are outsiders in science and medicine must be challenged, says Dr. Danielle N. Lee, assistant professor of biological sciences at Southern Illinois University. And having majority white participants in clinical trials only furthers the notion that "whiteness" is the default.
According to Lee, black individuals often see themselves disconnected from scientific and medical processes. "One of the critiques with science and medical research is that communities of color, and black communities in particular, regard ourselves as outsiders of science," Lee says. "We are othered."
Without increased minority participation, research will not accurately reflect the diversity of the general population.
"We are all human, but we are different, and yes, even different populations of people require modified medical responses," she points out.
Another obstacle is that many trials have health requirements that exclude black Americans, like not wanting individuals who have high blood pressure or a history of stroke. Considering that this group faces health disparities at a higher rate than whites, this eliminates eligibility for millions of potential participants.
One way to increase the diversity in sample participation without an FDA mandate is to include more black Americans in both volunteer and clinical roles during the research process to increase accountability in treatment, education, and advocacy.
"When more of us participate in clinical trials, we help build out the basic data sets that account for health disparities from the start, not after the fact," Lee says. She also suggests that researchers involve black patient representatives throughout the clinical trial process, from the study design to the interpretation of results.
"This allows for the black community to give insight on how to increase trial enrollment and help reduce stigma," she explains.
Thankfully, partnerships are popping up like the one between The Howard University's Cancer Center and Driver, a platform that connects cancer patients to treatment and trials. These sorts of targeted and culturally tailored efforts allow black patients to receive assistance from well-respected organizations.
Some observers suggest that the federal government and pharmaceutical industries must step up to address the gap.
However, some experts say that the black community should not be held solely responsible for solving a problem it did not cause. Instead, some observers suggest that the federal government and pharmaceutical industries must step up to address the gap.
According to Balls-Berry, socioeconomic barriers like transportation, time off work, and childcare related to trial participation must be removed. "These are real-world issues and yet many times researchers have not included these things in their budgets."
When asked to comment, a spokesperson for BIO, the world's largest biotech trade association, emailed the following statement:
"BIO believes that that our members' products and services should address the needs of a diverse population, and enhancing participation in clinical trials by a diverse patient population is a priority for BIO and our member companies. By investing in patient education to improve awareness of clinical trial opportunities, we can reduce disparities in clinical research to better reflect the country's changing demographics."
For my mother, the patient suffering from autoimmune disease, the need for broad participation in medical research is clear. "Without clinical trials, we would have less diagnosis and solutions to diseases," she says. "I think it's an underutilized resource."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”