2016: The Year of Diversity in Clinical Trials

By: Robert M. Califf, M.D.

Controlled clinical trials provide a critical base of evidence for evaluating whether a medical product is effective before the product is approved for marketing. One challenge that remains for FDA is ensuring that research participants are representative of the patients who will use the medical product.

Robert M. Califf, M.D., MACC, FDA's Commissioner of Food and DrugsMoving from the result of a clinical trial to applying it in practice is complex. But it’s generally agreed that the composition of the population enrolled in a trial should help FDA reviewers, clinicians, or policy makers to have confidence that the trial results will apply to future practice.

Furthermore, a wide range of people should have the opportunity to participate in trials, both for access to new therapies and to have the chance to contribute to better treatment of everyone, an important altruistic goal for many Americans.

Historically, the elderly, women (in some therapeutic areas), and racial/ethnic minorities have been underrepresented in trials. A substantial body of literature has documented this under-representation in recent years, particularly for women in some cardiovascular trials and general inclusion of black/African-American and minority participants in clinical trials. In response to these concerns, Congress included Section 907 in the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act (FDASIA) of 2012, giving FDA direction to evaluate this issue and take action.

FDA has responded in multiple ways, including the creation of Drug Trials Snapshots that give the public readouts of the demographic profile of people participating in clinical trials for approved drugs. While progress has been made, we’ve learned from this program that we still have work to do. An evaluation of the Snapshots since the program began more than a year ago shows that some groups, especially ethnic and racial groups, aren’t always well represented in clinical trials.

These data are critical, because certain groups of patients may respond differently to therapies. For example, studies for a recently approved schizophrenia drug found that one side effect – the urge to move constantly – was seen more often in black/African-American patients. Two important classes of blood pressure drugs were found to work less well in black patients. And a drug for heart failure works very well in black patients but not in white patients. We also have seen labeling changes due to differences in dosing requirements between men and women, such as the recent labeling change with a sleep medication. These few examples show the importance of improving diversity in clinical trials, so medical products are safe and effective for everyone.

Increasing diversity in clinical trials is a priority for FDA. To that end, in 2016, the Agency is planning a variety of activities to push for greater inclusion, including more minority participation. For example:

  • FDA’s Office of Minority Health has developed a variety of tools to support clinical trial participation, including collaboration with the National Library of Medicine to help consumers and patients find clinical trials, educational materials on trials, as well as a multi-media campaign highlighting the importance of clinical trial participation. These materials are designed to urge those underrepresented in clinical trials to find out more information, and consider enrolling.
  • FDA’s Office of Women’s Health launched its Diverse Women in Clinical Trials initiative. Developed in collaboration with the National Institute of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health, this multipronged effort will raise awareness and share best practices about clinical research design, recruitment, and subpopulation analyses.
  • Our biostatisticians, trial design experts, and quantitative scientists will continue to work with the research community to develop methods to refine our approach to the conduct and analysis of trials to provide the best estimates of treatment effects for diverse populations.
  • We will continue our commitment to include patient advocacy groups to engage patients in clinical trial design, feedback and evaluation from a patient’s perspective. By engaging patients early in the trial design process, feasibility and participation may be improved.
  • Finally, our Office of External Affairs plans to publish a consumer update describing what it is like to participate in a clinical trial and encouraging the public to enroll in trials, if possible.

As mentioned above, these activities – and, indeed, the Snapshot program itself – were conceived as part of FDA’s response to Section 907 of FDASIA. This provision directed FDA to conduct an inventory of how well various population groups were being represented in clinical trials of FDA-regulated medical products and whether these data were publicly reported. Once that was done, FDA was directed to develop an action plan, which we published in August 2014. And we’ve been diligently working toward implementation and sustainability ever since.

As you heard from Barb Buch, M.D., Associate Director for Medicine at CBER, earlier this month, the public meeting at the end of next month will continue the dialogue with important stakeholders –like you – to continue this momentum.

And there’s more to come.

We want to make 2016 the year of more diversity in clinical trials. But we can’t do it alone. Stay tuned in the coming months for how we can work together to make this critical goal a reality.

Robert M. Califf, M.D., previously FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Medical Products and Tobacco, became FDA’s Commissioner of Food and Drugs on Feb. 25, 2016

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