Apr 11, 2023 Addressing the Challenge: Connecting Black Women with Clinical Trials

Ije Akunyili, MDJersey City, N.J. – Clinical trials are an important step in bringing forth new treatments for many diseases. Unfortunately, many clinical trials have strikingly low rates of Black participants including those that disproportionately affect Blacks such as breast cancer – the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death for this population, according the American Cancer Society.

In Hudson County, incidences of cancer are especially profound. According to Jersey City Medical Center’s most recent community needs assessment, which utilized date from the New Jersey Cancer Registry and the New Jersey Department of Health (2015-2019), the mortality rate among Black women in Hudson County from breast cancer nearly doubled that of White residents and almost tripled that of Asian women and Latinas. In fact, more aggressive subtypes of breast cancer – like triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) has a disproportionate effect on Black women. There is a persistent and significant mortality gap between Black women and other racial/ethnic groups and significantly so compared to white women for breast cancer, with up to a 40 percent greater mortality rate.

Minority groups are glaringly missing from participation in clinical trials, especially Black women. Clinical trials allow scientists to gather information on health conditions and medical treatments and are key to the development of new drugs and interventions to ensure that treatments are effective for everyone. As more information is learned about breast cancer and its impact on Black women, physicians will be better equipped to develop strategies for individualized care, and for investigators to continue to diversify their research. Our participation is critical.

These differences are due in part to an underrepresentation of Black patients in clinical trials. An unfortunate distrust in medical professionals from the Black community remains due to the history of health care injustices committed against communities of color, such as the Tuskegee study. Misinformation about the value of clinical trials, its benefits, and barriers to care also contribute to underrepresentation. This disparity results in poorer outcomes for Black patients and a lack of knowledge of the true drug efficacy in a population that needs FDA approved treatments the most.

The fact is that clinical trials for breast cancer provides invaluable information and evidence of new cancer treatments. I am grateful that investigators from Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, are working to address the challenge. In fact, my colleague, Dr. Coral Omene at Rutgers Cancer Institute has been awarded a grant from the V Foundation for Cancer Research in partnership with ESPN to increase clinical trial awareness and enrollment of Black women with breast cancer. The efforts in this funded project to increase clinical trial participation among Black breast cancer patients, includes tailored patient education; advocacy and outreach; patient navigation; and physician engagement and outreach. Cancer is a disease that can impact anyone, but it does not impact everyone equally.

Ije Akunyili, MD, is Chief Medical Officer at Jersey City Medical Center, a facility of RWJBarnabas Health, a regional, full-service acute and sub-acute care 348-bed teaching hospital in Hudson County, New Jersey.

April has been designated National Minority Cancer Awareness Month to bring attention to the health disparities that lead to higher rates of cancer in Black people and other communities of color. Learn more about Rutgers Cancer Institute’s commitment to diversity and Inclusivity in cancer clinical trials.

Coral Omene, MD, PhD, is a medical oncologist at the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center, member of the Cancer Health Equity Center of Excellence, and Program Director, Breast Cancer Disparities Research at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the state’s leading cancer center and only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center together with RWJBarnabas Health, and an assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.