How Virtual Clinical Trials Might Help Pharma’s Dangerous Diversity Problem

Keerthi Vedantam

Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.

How Virtual Clinical Trials Might Help Pharma’s Dangerous Diversity Problem
Photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

Last year, pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences came under fire for testing its coronavirus vaccine on a sample of people that didn't accurately reflect those largely devastated by it — the elderly, the poor and Latino communities.

The scenario exposed a deeper trouble among drugmakers and is far from uncommon. A study last month from the medical journal JAMA Network found white peoplewere overrepresented in vaccine clinical trials. This has dangerous implications for the outcome of drugs, according to researchers who issued the report from Harvard Medical School, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.


The problem is so rampant that the FDA last year revised its guidance on clinical trials, in part prompted by the travel restrictions COVID imposed.

In issuing the directive last fall, the former FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn directly cited the different health care outcomes different racial groups, older adults and pregnant women faced battling the deadly virus.

"This difference in impact illustrates why we must encourage developers of any medical product such as treatments or vaccines for COVID-19 – as well as medical products more broadly – to endeavor to include diverse populations to understand their risks or benefits across all groups."

The biggest hurdle for most clinical trials is convincing a wide-ranging sample of individuals to participate in them. The problem is especially acute in rural areas, where patients are unlikely to sign up because they are far from large universities or hospitals that often carry these out. But that is also true for people who don't drive a car or who cannot take time out of the work day. Black and Latino populations have lower participation rates. And clinical trials can also take years, which screens out patients with unpredictable livelihoods.

In other words, the very individuals that the health care industry often fails to reach also get locked out of clinical trials to medicines that could save their life.

El Segundo-based MedVector has created a device to make it easier for patients to participate in clinical trials, so companies can lock in more participants earlier and faster while getting the varied lifestyles needed to test drugs.

"We're not accelerating the study at all," Scott Stout, the CEO and co-founder of MedVector. "We're eliminating the delays that happen in the patient recruitment component."

The four-year-old startup one of several companies that are trying to novel approaches to patients to clinical trials virtually. MedVector has raised 630,000 via crowdsourcing, and Pitchbook valued the company at $10 million. Science 37, another Los Angeles-based company, raised $40 million last year to build up their system of at-home clinical trials. The company is also backed by some of the biggest names in pharma including Novartis, Amgen and Sanofi. Medable, Covance and a slew of other companies are stepping into the space as well.

MedVector coordinates with contract research organizations that are hired by sponsors to manage the clinical trial process to send the shoebox-sized touchscreen device to the participant's doctor. The patient and trial's principal investigator can essentially teleconference while the nurse at the doctor's office acts like the investigator's "hands," taking vitals or measuring height and weight. Most clinical trials document labs (like blood work), scans (MRI or CAT scans), verbal input from the patient about how they feel, and visual data like rashes or swelling.

Virtualized or decentralized clinical trials haven't always been embraced by the industry. While more physicians have moved towards telehealth and telemedicine, the control and standardization of in-person trials are considered the gold standard in clinical trials.

"Different drugs metabolize differently. It's not like one size fits all," said Dr. Eunjoo Pacifici, a professor at the USC School of Pharmacy. "So if you don't include a diverse population in your clinical trial, you cannot confirm that, yes, everybody responds similarly and everyone demonstrates a similar safety and efficacy profile when they take this medicine."

But that's exactly what happens. A 2019 study that reviewed 10 years of cancer drug clinical trials and 112,293 participants found that 3.1% of trial participants were Black and 6.1% Latino. Researchers from the University of British Columbia, the University of Texas, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and Baylor University found that a major risk assessment test for breast cancer had only been validated for white women.

"Scientists ignore the impact of cancer drug efficacy on..three major race groups," they concluded, a fact that could "prove detrimental to survival rates" for all other women.

Another well known example of a clinical trial that failed to be representative is Zoldpidem (or Ambien), a sleep drug developed in the 90s. When the drug went to market, it became clear it stayed in women's bloodstream longer than men's, and women were prone to lingering daytime drowsiness, making driving more dangerous. In 2013, the FDA halved its standard dosage for women.

Pacifici says the efficacy of a drug doesn't depend solely on biologic factors. Extrinsic factors — like one's job, geographic environment, age and lifestyle — can prevent people from taking otherwise-effective high-maintenance drugs.

"You want to make sure that the makeup of a clinical trial, as much as you can, mirrors the makeup of the target population who will need this medication," she said.

Part of the newfound appeal of virtual clinical trials comes from the pharma industry. Clinical trials are notoriously long — the longest part of at least a 10-year journey from drug discovery to FDA approval and marketing. Finding hundreds of people to participate in clinical trials can stall the already long process of getting a drug to market, eating into a pharmaceutical patent's 20 year lifespan and the pharmaceutical company's profit margins.

"We are getting medicines to market more quickly with better data, which means that it is safer." Stout said. "It means that you've got less waste. It means that you've got less people dying while waiting for a new drug to come down the pipeline."

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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

🔦 Spotlight

Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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Fuel Innovation: 7 Unforgettable Team Building Experiences in LA
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In today's competitive business landscape, team building activities have emerged as a crucial tool for fostering a positive work environment, enhancing productivity, and crucially, improving employee retention. Studies have shown that such activities help employees feel valued, with one report indicating that 93% of those who felt appreciated were more motivated at work. Importantly, team building events may improve retention rates, as employees who feel connected to their colleagues and company culture are more likely to stay long-term. With these benefits in mind, let's explore some of the most engaging and effective team building activities available in Los Angeles.

Pickleball

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Pickleball is a fantastic team bonding activity because of the easy-to-grasp rules and gentle pace make it perfect for everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. The game thrives on communication and teamwork, as players must collaborate and strategize to outplay their opponents, boosting team cohesion. Plus, the lively, fast-paced action sparks friendly competition and laughter, creating a fun and spirited atmosphere that brings everyone closer together. Los Angeles boasts numerous pickleball courts that are easy to rent if you have your own equipment. If you need additional assistance organizing your pickleball outing, there are plenty of full-service companies ready to handle every detail for you.

Resources: Pickle Pop, Corporate Pickle


Escape Room

Image Source: The Escape Game

Escape rooms are a great way to build camaraderie. They require participants to work together, combining their problem-solving skills and creativity to overcome challenges and puzzles. The immersive and time-sensitive nature of escape rooms fosters collaboration and communication. Additionally, the shared experience of tackling complex tasks and reaching a common goal helps build trust and foster positive emotions among colleagues.

Resources: The Escape Game, 60Out


Day Trip to Catalina Island

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Catalina Island is a perfect day trip for a team because it provides a break from the usual work environment, allowing team members to relax and connect in a new setting. Shared experiences during the trip, such as exploring new places and participating in fun activities, help build stronger relationships and foster a sense of camaraderie. There are numerous team-building activities such as an arboreal obstacle course, an island tour, scavenger hunts and more.

Resources: Catalina Island Group Activities


Top Golf

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Topgolf is an excellent team building event because it provides an inclusive, relaxed atmosphere that accommodates players of all skill levels, fostering personal connections and improving team morale. The unique blend of competition and entertainment creates an ideal setting for building trust, enhancing communication, and revealing hidden skills among team members. Additionally, Topgolf offers structured team building packages with guided activities, discussion prompts, and lessons on culture, change, collaboration, and strategy, making it a versatile and effective platform for strengthening relationships and boosting overall team performance.

Resources: Topgolf El Segundo


SoFi Stadium Tour

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A SoFi Stadium tour offers a unique, behind-the-scenes experience of one of the world's most advanced sports venues, allowing team members to explore exclusive areas like premium suites, team locker rooms, and the player tunnel together. The tour provides a shared, memorable experience that can foster camaraderie and spark conversations among team members, regardless of their interest in sports. Additionally, the stadium's state-of-the-art features and impressive architecture can inspire creativity and innovation, while the group setting encourages interaction and collaboration, making it an engaging and enjoyable activity for teams of various sizes and backgrounds

Resources: SoFi Stadium Group Tours


Corporate Volunteering

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Volunteer work serves as an excellent team building activity by uniting employees around a shared, meaningful cause, fostering a sense of purpose and collective accomplishment. It provides opportunities for team members to collaborate in new ways, often revealing hidden strengths and leadership qualities that may not be apparent in the regular work environment. Additionally, engaging in community service can boost morale, enhance the company's reputation, and instill a sense of pride among employees, leading to improved workplace relationships and increased job satisfaction.

Resources: Habitat for Humanity, L.A. Works, VolunteerMatch


Corporate Improv Sessions

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A corporate improv class encourages spontaneity, creativity, and quick thinking, skills that are valuable in the workplace. It promotes active listening and collaboration, as participants must work together to create scenes and respond to unexpected situations, fostering better communication and trust among team members. Additionally, the playful and often humorous nature of improv helps break down barriers, reduces stress, and creates a shared positive experience that can improve team morale and cohesion long after the event.

Resources: Improv-LA, Groundlings, Improv for the People

🎬 Paramount and Skydance Are Back On
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Happy Friday Los Angeles! Hope you all had a fantastic Fourth!!

🔦 Spotlight

Paramount and Skydance Media have rekindled talks to merge after negotiations abruptly halted in June. The proposed deal, contingent on approval from Paramount’s board, aims to combine Paramount’s extensive media holdings—including CBS, MTV, and Nickelodeon—with Skydance’s film expertise showcased in hits like "Top Gun: Maverick." This merger signals a potential transformation in the media landscape, positioning the new entity to compete more effectively amid challenges from streaming services and the decline of traditional cable TV.

Led by Shari Redstone, Paramount’s controlling shareholder via National Amusements, the deal represents a pivot towards revitalizing Paramount’s strategic direction amidst financial struggles and shareholder concerns. The involvement of major investors like RedBird Capital Partners and David Ellison underscores the financial backing aimed at stabilizing Paramount’s operations and addressing its $14 billion debt burden. Importantly, the agreement includes provisions to protect National Amusements from potential legal challenges, addressing previous hurdles that stalled earlier negotiations.

The deal also includes a 45-day period for Paramount to explore alternative offers, highlighting continued interest from other potential buyers like Barry Diller’s IAC and media executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. This flurry of activity underscores the significant stakeholders’ interest in Paramount’s future and its potential as a key player in a rapidly evolving media industry.


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  • Sidecar Health, a startup that offers personalized health insurance plans to businesses that allow members to see any doctor and pay directly at the time of service, raised a $165M Series D led by Koch Disruptive Technologies. - learn more

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