Janssen (NYSE:JNJ) is working to highlight the importance of cancers such as leukemias, lymphomas and multiple myeloma for Blood Cancer Awareness Month in September.
Some 1.5 million people in the U.S. are currently living with or in remission from blood cancers, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Roughly 35,000 people are diagnosed with multiple myeloma each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
In addition to highlighting the incidence of hematologic malignancies, Blood Cancer Awareness Month offers an opportunity to provide education about the need for improved clinical trial diversity. While the industry has made strides recently, people of color continue to be underrepresented in clinical trials. According to FDA data, in 2020, three-quarters of trial participants were white, while only 8% were Black. That same year, 11% of clinical trial participants were Hispanic.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.6% of the U.S. population is Black while 18.9% is Hispanic or Latino.
The lack of diversity is a hurdle for areas such as multiple myeloma, said Lisa Lewis, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion in clinical trials for oncology at Janssen. “There are documented disparities in multiple myeloma outcomes,” Lewis said.
To address those imbalances, Janssen is collaborating with Dr. Brandon Blue, who specializes in multiple myeloma and plasma cell disorders. Blue’s research interests also include addressing health disparities in hematology and oncology.
“This partnership with Dr. Blue is very important for us to give voice to [health disparities] during Blood Cancer Awareness Month,” Lewis said.
Another goal of the alliance between Janssen and Blue is to increase awareness of clinical trials as a potential option for patients with multiple myeloma and other blood cancers.
Janssen also created the “Research includes me” initiative that summarizes its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts related to clinical trials.
An inflection point
While there is considerable room for progress in clinical trial diversity, Lewis said the industry is at an “inflection point.”
“The tide is definitely turning,” Lewis said. “At Janssen and other sponsors across the industry, thinking about disparities and diversity in clinical trials is not new.” Having worked in oncology for more than two decades, Lewis says she has seen drug companies succeed in prioritizing inclusion in clinical trials.
More recently, however, the industry’s focus on diversity has ramped up. “We know that diversity is something we really need to take seriously,” Lewis said. “We need to make sure that no patients are left behind in our oncology clinical trials.”
An organizational focus on diversity
Janssen has an organization-wide focus on diversity, equity and inclusion led by Jorge Hechavarria, the company’s senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion in clinical trials. The company has 16 executives focused exclusively on diversity, and it continues to expand the team.
“We’ve grown by leaps and bounds even over the past year or so,” Lewis said.
Diversity-focused leaders on the team focus on various clinical areas, including oncology, immunology, neuroscience, cardiovascular diseases and infectious diseases.
“Although the work has been ongoing for a long time, we have a bonafide team aligned by therapeutic area to work with senior leadership,” Lewis said.
A background working in the trenches
Janssen’s diversity team has significant industry experience. Lewis, for instance, began her career in academia doing bench research in pediatric hematology and oncology in a large academic medical center in New York City.
Later in her career, she worked as a study coordinator in investigator sites, where she had to work with patients from all walks of life.
“I was in the trenches, working arm-in-arm with the oncologists and research nurses,” Lewis said.
At that early phase of her career, diversity was a clear theme.
“Now, being at Janssen and being able to do the work is a full circle moment for me,” Lewis said. “It’s very rewarding. I think all of us [in Janssen’s diversity team] are passionate about the work that we’re doing, and that passion resonates throughout the organization.”
Filed Under: clinical trials, Drug Discovery, Oncology