Black Participants Are Sorely Absent from Medical Research
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."
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.