Access and Health Equity
Stacey Bledsoe’s Resolve to Make Clinical Trials Available to Everyone
Stories@Gilead - February 23, 2023 - 4 min read
Stacey Bledsoe’s life took a personal and professional turn in 2015, when her father was diagnosed with lung cancer. A nurse by training, Stacey asked his oncologist whether she could recommend a clinical trial, but despite being based at a major academic medical center, the physician didn’t know of any.
“That’s when I knew I had to do something to change this and build awareness all the way around for clinical trials,” says Stacey, Gilead’s new Head of Clinical Trial Diversity and Inclusion. “From that day on, I was resolved to help ensure that clinical trials are available to everyone, including racial and ethnic minorities who have historically been underrepresented in these studies.”
Stacey worked for years as a newborn intensive care nurse and in 2003 began a career in the biopharmaceutical industry. But it was her father’s illness that first opened her eyes to the inequity in clinical trials. Soon thereafter she became a leader in efforts to increase diverse representation in trials, helping launch multiple initiatives to address the disparities, which are particularly stark in cancer care. She notes that Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer, yet minorities as a whole only account for 10-15% of participants in cancer trials. As a result of the gap, clinicians have incomplete information on the effects many drugs have on racial and ethnic minorities.
“My career has taught me that clinical trials are how you get the newest treatments in oncology,” says Stacey. “If my family didn’t have access to a trial, I knew other families were going through the same thing as well.”
She says a historical lack of trust in the healthcare system is a factor in why people from minority groups don’t sign up for trials. But lack of awareness and education among both patients and providers is also at the heart of the issue.
“I don’t want to underestimate the trust factor, but we also know from research that people from communities of color are not asked to participate in trials,” she explains. “When they are educated about their disease and asked to participate, they are more likely to do so.”
Stacey came to Gilead last year because of its legacy and leadership in advancing health equity and access for underrepresented communities. “Gilead had a reputation for putting patients first, and that’s important to me. I knew it was a trustworthy company, and I want to build on that foundation.”
In her first six months at the company, Stacey devised a strategy around three key groups: patients, providers and partners. One way to reach more diverse trial participants is to base a study where patients live so they don’t have to travel long distances to participate, she explains. Another is to involve providers from the same background who understand and can relate to the community they serve. Finally, she says it’s important to develop strong relationships with key partners – churches, community organizations and advocacy groups – that can help provide outreach to participants and support them during a trial.
Stacey is incorporating these strategies into some new national initiatives. During Black History Month, her team is partnering with the non-profit Black Health Matters to kick off an educational campaign about Gilead’s cancer trials for triple-negative breast cancer, which is prevalent in the Black community.
Her team has also established a partnership with Highland Hospital in Oakland, which serves a large Black population. Gilead will support a new cancer trial center at the hospital to “ensure that all patients have the opportunity to get cancer care in their own backyard,” she says.
Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued new draft guidance for biopharmaceutical companies to enroll more participants from underrepresented racial and ethnic populations into clinical trials. Stacey is working to first implement these new strategies in the United States and then broaden and replicate them globally.
“In my mind, every patient should have access to innovative drugs,” she says.
Ultimately, Stacey’s goal is to give people opportunities that her father didn’t have. “I always tell people, I did not leave who I was at the door when I left nursing and entered the door at pharma. I’m still a nurse at heart,” she says. “The patient always still comes first.”