Since its launch in July 2021, Novartis’ “Beacon of Hope” collaboration with historically Black colleges and universities as well as groups like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund has seen the organizations work together to increase the diversity of participants in clinical research as well as expand awareness of high-level health education and jobs. Here, Dr. Patrice Matchaba, head of US corporate responsibility and president of the Novartis US Foundation, details recent expansions to the overarching initiative. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

MM+M: What motivated Novartis to launch Beacon of Hope?

Dr. Matchaba: When we started talking with the presidents and deans of the HBCUs, we learned that kids from historically black communities drop out because college fees are too expensive. Most drop out due to generational poverty. And those who graduate as pharmacists or doctors or nurses don’t stay to do clinical trial research. That’s why we created scholarships with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and internships, because we need to teach the kids that there are careers in research and development and drug development. 

What are some of the program specifics?

The 120 scholarships are going to be given out next month. The interns are already on site: 18 of them are in Boston learning drug discovery for three months. We have about 4,000 scientists there who are teaching them drug discovery and translational medicine. 

How will these programs address the lack of diversity in clinical trial cohorts?

With the four centers of excellence for the clinical trials, Morehouse is already starting one of the cardiovascular trials. We are going to increase the number of investigators because in a situation where they don’t trust the healthcare system, how are you going to increase the number of patients participating?

We also added 10 grants to research non-medical causes of health disparities. My anticipation is that we’ll do the 10 research grants for non-medical faculty every year for 10 years, so at least 100 research papers will come out of that. We are going to take those papers and send them to policy makers and see if the findings can be translated into law and funding.

What role did Novartis’ partners, Merck and Sanofi, play?

It was important that the other companies that joined us shared the same values. In other words, they realized that there are no simple solutions to health disparities in the U.S.  It’s taken centuries to get to where we are, so companies have to be willing to put their clinical trials in the less well-off medical centers. No company was doing that before.

We have worked with Merck and Sanofi in global health and they share the same values as Novartis, so they will now start putting their studies in those centers and will start developing a critical mass of young investigators and exposing them to new medicines and technologies.

What challenges did Novartis run into when creating these programs? And how did you get past them?

We started these discussions in February of last year, but we only got agreement with the 26 presidents and deans and with the Thurgood Marshall fund, the National Medical Association and Coursera four months later. What we realized was we had a trust deficit. The real issue here is not a financial challenge in terms of creating new sites; the real issue is earning the trust of that community.

We are going to co-create new courses on how to do clinical trials closer to home and on community health nursing and using technologies. However, it requires different partners to understand that building this trust takes 10 years.
We created another center of excellence at Morehouse to review where race is imputed throughout medicine – an example of this being the pulse oximeters overestimating oxygen levels in Black and brown patients. They were never included in the calibration. This is the importance of having diversity and inclusion not only for medicines, but for diagnostic technologies. We need to question the validity for patients of color in these technologies.