Improving diversity in cancer clinical trials

Despite making up 13.4% of the U.S. population, only 5% of Black patients with cancer are enrolled in clinical trials. Of 8,700 patients who participated in trials nationwide related to the 28 oncology drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2018 and 2019, only 4% were Black, according to FDA Drug Trial Snapshot reports.

Medical worker in a face mask holds a clipboard for an African American person to sign.

Why does clinical trial participation matter? The newest cures are only available in clinical trials—these trials provide access to potential treatments that might be better than standard of care treatments now. Efforts at Penn Medicine are underway to take on both issues of equity in clinical trials and screening access through community engagement programs and expanded education.

Armenta Washington, a senior research coordinator at the Abramson Cancer Center, who had lost her cousin to colon cancer before the age of 50, was fueled by a mission, to improve education for Black people about higher risk cancers while also encouraging screenings (which should start at 45, or earlier if there is a family history).

“If we can help eliminate those barriers to accessing colorectal cancer screenings, we would find it earlier and maybe prevent its progression, and reduce the rates of colorectal cancer death in our region that disproportionately falls on Black and Latinx people,” Washington says.

Last year, Washington and Carmen Guerra, an internal medicine physician and vice chair of diversity and inclusion for the Department of Medicine, established a program called Flu-FIT, which used local connections and community events to create opportunities for people to get screened for colorectal cancer and receive their flu vaccine.

In addition to disease prevention efforts, Washington and Guerra launched a pilot program to encourage clinical trial participation among the underserved community. Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC)’s Cancer Clinical Trials Community Ambassador Training Program was established in August 2021 to create cancer clinical trial community spokespersons and resources to increase awareness and access to cancer clinical trials in the diverse Philadelphia communities. 

The program trained a cohort of cancer survivors and caregivers of patients with cancer on how to engage with primarily Black communities in conversations about cancer and the importance of cancer clinical trial research participation.

This story is by Caren Begun. Read more at Penn Medicine News.