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Now more than ever, people are looking to the biotech industry to meet the diverse needs of our communities, and to collaborate and innovate to deliver a more equitable future of cancer care. Below, Genentech’s Chief Diversity Officer, Quita Highsmith, and Global Head of Oncology and Hematology Product Development, Charles Fuchs, unpack the biases that have shaped biopharmaceutical research and development, and discuss how we can ask bigger questions to help advance health equity and inclusion in cancer care.

Quita Highsmith, Chief Diversity Officer, Genentech and Charles Fuchs, Global Head of Oncology and Hematology Product Development, Genentech

What are the major challenges facing the biopharma industry when it comes to inclusion?

Quita Highsmith: Our industry suffers from a significant lack of diversity in our research. To address this, we need to partner with communities and investigators of Color in our clinical trials, and ask ourselves tough questions around how our research processes can be more inclusive. We have much to gain by doing so because these existing barriers foster a false narrative that people of Color don’t want to participate in research, when in reality, these communities simply don’t have access.

What creates these biases? And how can our industry evolve to address and overcome them?

Charles Fuchs: There are a lot of drivers behind these biases, but one of the biggest is the lack of diversity in the science community. We need to think about who we work with and how we design our training and recruitment programs. Doing this enables people who are underrepresented to have opportunities in the biotech industry. In turn, it will also encourage more diversity in our studies. We know people who are underrepresented in clinical trials are more likely to participate when they see people on the clinical team that look like them. Just as Quita stated — to increase access in clinical trials, we need to be inclusive and involve people of Color.

How can biotech companies implement more inclusive research protocols and incorporate inclusion in a way that is truly impactful?

Quita Highsmith: As we move towards personalized care, especially in oncology, we need to make sure artificial intelligence (AI) models are making decisions that are representative of all patients’ needs. Nearly 90% of the genomic information we have available is from white patients, yet the current data that feeds into AI models are not representative of diverse patient populations. Since AI algorithms are bound to become increasingly important to diagnose patients, we need to build trust and engage people of Color in our healthcare system to inform and improve AI algorithms that will be making many of our future healthcare treatment decisions.

Charles Fuchs: I agree, Quita. As an industry, we tend to choose major academic medical centers where there is a high volume of clinical trial work. When you go to the same tried-and-true hospitals repeatedly, the pool of patients becomes very homogeneous and tends to be primarily white. It’s critical to bring more trials into the community setting by including new sites that can reach underrepresented groups. At Genentech, we’re rethinking our clinical trial designs, our site specifications, and our research operations. The upfront work can take more time, but it’s work worth doing that can actually drive better results.

How can a biopharma company position themselves to lead in this area?

Charles Fuchs: Our industry needs to approach health equity with concrete plans and metrics. That’s one of the goals we’ve set for ourselves at Genentech; we’re exploring ways to back up our vision with concrete plans and metrics to hold ourselves accountable. We’re making it a priority for our business by embedding diversity and equity into our business model, research protocols, and organizational culture.

Quita Highsmith: That’s right. We recently founded the Advancing Inclusive ResearchTM Site Alliance. This is a partnership with several community-based research hospitals to increase the representation of diverse patient populations in our oncology clinical trials and test enrollment approaches that can ultimately be leveraged across the industry. We plan to report out on the lessons learned, expand into other therapeutic areas, and increase the membership of the Alliance throughout the United States and beyond.

We’re also collaborating with key healthcare stakeholders on clinical trial efforts, as well as our efforts to increase cancer screening. For example, we’re partnering with Stand Up to Cancer to fund efforts in New York City to increase participation of Black, Indigenous and people of Color in cancer clinical trials. Related to cancer screening, which is extremely important in light of the pandemic, we’re collaborating with the American Cancer Society to promote cancer screening to help improve outcomes for cancer patients, who typically have a better prognosis when they are diagnosed early.

Next steps for the future

For this generation to cure cancer, the biotech industry needs to ask bigger questions, take bolder steps, and drive innovation that is inclusive of all patients. In the words of Charles Fuchs, “whether it comes from our own sources or from partnerships with other companies, if it’s going to help patients with cancer, we’re going to go there.”

Learn more about Genentech’s current efforts and future vision for oncology.