Herman Taylor, director of the cardiovascular research institute at Morehouse college, got in touch with UnitedHealth Group early in the pandemic.
The very people who most require solutions to COVID are those who are least likely to be involved in the search to find them.
A colleague he worked with at Grady Hospital in Atlanta was the guy when it came to studying sickle cell disease, a recessive genetic disorder that causes red blood cells to harden into half-moon shapes, causing cardiovascular problems. Sickle cell disease is more common in African Americans than it is in Caucasians, in part because having just one gene for the disease, called sickle cell trait, is protective against malaria, which is endemic to much of Africa. Roughly one in 12 African Americans carry sickle cell trait, and Taylor's colleague wondered if this could be one factor affecting differential outcomes for COVID-19.
UnitedHealth Group granted Taylor and his colleague the money to study sickle cell trait in COVID, and then, as they continued working together, they began to ask Taylor his opinion on other topics. As an insurance company, United had realized early in the pandemic that it was sitting on a goldmine of patient data—some 120 million patients' worth—that it could sift through to look for potential COVID treatments.
Their researchers thought they had found one: In a small subset of 14,000 people who'd contracted COVID, there was a group whose bills were paid by Medicare (which the researchers took as a proxy for older age). The people in this group who were taking ACE inhibitors, blood vessel dilators often used to treat high blood pressure, were 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized than those who were not taking the drug.
The connection between ACE inhibitors and COVID hospitalizations was a correlation, a statistical association. To determine whether the drugs had any real effect on COVID outcomes, United would have to perform another, more rigorous study. They would have to assign some people to receive small doses of ACE inhibitors, and others to receive placebos, and measure the outcomes under each condition. They planned to do this virtually, allowing study participants to sign up and be screened online, and sending drugs, thermometers, and tests through the mail. There were two reasons to do it this way: First, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had been advising medical researchers to embrace new strategies in clinical trials as a way to protect participants during the pandemic.
The second reason was why they asked Herman Taylor to co-supervise it: Clinical trials have long had a diversity problem. And going virtual is a potential solution.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 has infected people of color at a rate of three times that of Caucasians (killing Black people at a rate 2.5 times as high, and Hispanic and American Indian or Alaska Native people at a rate 1.3 times as high). A number of explanations have been put forth to explain this disproportionate toll. Among them: higher levels of poverty, essential jobs that increase exposure, and lower quality or inadequate access to medical care.
Unfortunately, these same factors also affect who participates in research. People of color may be less likely to have doctors recommend studies to them. They may not have the time or the resources to hang out in a waiting room for hours. They may not live near large research institutions that conduct trials. The result is that new treatments, even for diseases that affect Latin, Native American, or African American populations in greater proportions, are studied mostly in white volunteers. The very people who most require solutions to COVID are those who are least likely to be involved in the search to find them.
Virtual trials can alleviate a number of these problems. Not only can people find and request to participate in these types of trials through their phones or computers, virtual trials also cover more costs, include a larger geographical range, and have inherently flexible hours.
"[In a traditional study] you have to go to a doctor's office to enroll and drive a couple of hours and pay $20 for parking and pay $15 for a sandwich in the hospital cafeteria and arrange for daycare for your kids and take time off of work," says Dr. Jonathan Cotliar, chief medical officer of Science37, a platform that investigators can hire to host and organize their trials virtually. "That's a lot just for one visit, much less over the course of a six to 12-month study."
Cotliar's data suggests that virtual trials' enhanced access seriously affects the racial makeup of a given study's participant pool. Sixty percent of patients enrolled in Science37 trials are non-Caucasian, which is, Cotliar says, "staggering compared to what you find in traditional site-based research."
But access is not the only barrier to including more people of color in clinical trials. There is also trust. When agreeing to sign up for research, undocumented immigrants may worry about finding themselves in legal trouble or without any medical support should something go wrong. In a country with a history of experimenting on African Americans without their consent, black people may not trust institutions not to use them as guinea pigs.
"A lot of people report being somewhat disregarded or disrespected once entering the healthcare system," Taylor says. "You take it all together, then people wonder, well, okay, this is how the system tends to regard me, yet now here come these people doing research, and they're all about getting me into their studies." Not so surprising that a lot of people may respond with a resounding "No thanks."
United's ACE inhibitor trial was notable for addressing both of these challenges. In addition to covering costs and allowing study subjects to participate from their own homes, it was being co-sponsored by a professor at Morehouse, one of the country's historic black colleges and universities (often abbreviated HBCUs). United was recruiting heavily in Atlanta, whose population is 52 percent African American. The study promised a thoughtful introduction to a more egalitarian future of medical research.
There's just one problem: It isn't going to happen.
This month, in preparation for the study, United reanalyzed their ACE inhibitor data with all the new patients who'd contracted COVID in the months since their first analysis. Their original data set had been concentrated in the Northeast, mostly New York City, where the earliest outbreak took place. In the 12 weeks it had taken them to set up the virtual followup study, epicenters had shifted. United's second, more geographically comprehensive sample had ten times the number of people in it. And in that sample, the signal simply disappeared.
"I was shocked, but that's the reality," says Deneen Vojta, executive vice president of enterprise research and development for UnitedHealth Group. "You make decisions based on the data, but when you get more data, more information, you might make a different decision. The answer is the answer."
There was no point in running a virtual ACE inhibitor study if a larger, more representative sample of people indicated the drug was unlikely to help anyone. Still, the model United had established to run the trial remains viable. Even as she scrapped the ACE inhibitor study, Vojta hoped not just to continue United's relationship with Dr. Taylor and Morehouse, but to formalize it. Virtual platforms are still an important part of their forthcoming trials.
If people don't believe a vaccine has been created with them in mind, then they won't take it, and it won't matter whether it exists or not.
United is not alone in this approach. As phase three trials for vaccines against SARS CoV-2 get underway, big pharma companies have been publicly articulating their own strategies for including more people of color in clinical trials, and many of these include virtual elements. Janelle Sabo, global head of clinical innovation, systems and clinical supply chain at Eli Lilly, told me that the company is employing home health and telemedicine, direct-to-patient shipping and delivery, and recruitment using social media and geolocation to expand access to more diverse populations.
Dr. Macaya Douoguih, Head of Clinical Development and Medical Affairs for Janssen Vaccines under Johnson & Johnson, spoke to Congress about this issue during a July hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. She said that the company planned to institute a "focused digital and community outreach plan to provide resources and opportunities to encourage participation in our clinical trials," and had partnered with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health "to understand how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting different communities in the United States."
But while some of these plans are well thought-out, others are concerningly nebulous, featuring big pronouncements but fewer tangible strategies. In that same July hearing, Massachusetts representative Joe Kennedy III (D) sounded like a frustrated teacher when admonishing four of the five leads of the present pharma companies (AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Moderna, and Pfizer) for not explaining exactly how they'd ensure diversity both in the study of their vaccines, and in their eventual distribution.
This matters: The uptake of the flu vaccine is 10 percentage points lower in both the African American and Hispanic communities than it is in Caucasians. A Pew research study conducted early in the pandemic found that just 54 percent of Black adults said they "would definitely or probably get a coronavirus vaccine," compared to 74 percent of Whites and Hispanics.
"As a good friend of mine, Dr. [James] Hildreth, president at Meharry, another HBC medical school, likes to say: 'A vaccine is great, but it is the vaccination that saves people,'" Taylor says. If people don't believe a vaccine has been created with them in mind, then they won't take it, and it won't matter whether it exists or not.
In this respect, virtual platforms remain an important first step, at least in expanding admittance. In June, United Health opened up a trial to their entire workforce for a computer game that could treat ADHD. In less than two months, 1,743 people had signed up for it, from all different socioeconomic groups, from all over the country. It was inching closer to the kind of number you need for a phase three vaccine trial, which can require tens of thousands of people. Back when they'd been planning the ACE inhibitor study, United had wanted 9,600 people to agree to participate.
Now, with the help of virtual enrollment, they hope they can pull off similarly high numbers for the COVID vaccine trial they will be running for an as-yet-unnamed pharmaceutical partner. It stands to open in September.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."