Expanding the Benefits of Scientific Progress to Every Community: Interview with Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO)
December 2, 2021 – By Jared Mueller, Director – Mayo Clinic Innovation Exchange
Last year Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath became the third chief executive officer in the history of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), following a career in academic, government, non-profit, and private sector leadership. At BIO, Dr. McMurry-Heath’s priorities include broadening access to scientific progress, so that more patients from diverse backgrounds will benefit from cutting-edge innovation.
Immediately before joining BIO, Dr. McMurry-Heath held several leadership roles at Johnson & Johnson including heading a global regulatory and clinical team of 900 employees which led projects in 150 countries and serving as Vice President of Global External Innovation and Global Leader for Regulatory Sciences.
Prior to her tenure at Johnson & Johnson, Dr. McMurry-Heath served as associate science director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health under Commissioner Peggy Hamburg. In that role, Dr. McMurry-Heath championed clinical trial evolution, the use of real-world evidence in product evaluation, and an embrace of the patient’s voice in health research.
An alumna of Harvard College, Dr. McMurry-Heath later became the first African American to graduate from Duke University School of Medicine’s dual-degree M.D./Ph.D. program, the Medical Scientist Training Program. Dr. McMurry-Heath spent a decade at the bench and received training in science policy from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, before becoming the lead legislative aide for science and health for former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman.
Q: One hallmark of your leadership at the FDA and at BIO has been consistent, strong advocacy for improving the diversity of clinical trials. In a Nature Biotechnology article last year, you noted that in 2010 “African Americans represented 12% of the U.S. population, but only 5% of clinical trial participants. Hispanics were 16% of the population, but only 1% of trial participants.” What are steps that academic medical centers and companies can take together to enhance clinical trial diversity?
MMH: This is a crucial moment for clinical trial diversity. COVID-19 shined a bright light on unequal health outcomes in the U.S. and worldwide. This is a moment when opportunity can meet preparation, allowing us to make significant progress and help minorities and the underserved lead healthier lives. And clinical trial diversity is an important place to start.
Using lessons learned from the pandemic, drug and diagnostic companies are exploring new ways to reach under-represented communities. For example, we can make trials simpler and more accessible, providing things like free transportation to clinic sites or allowing virtual participation. We can improve the documentation of minority representation in trials, as well as the role of federal agencies.
In addition, the medical community should explore ways to increase the number of investigators from communities of color. It is also important for companies to have diverse workforces, themselves, so that multiple perspectives are always considered and that researchers look like the community they ultimately wish to serve.
BIO also launched a new resource to connect diverse patients with information they need to make sound decisions about clinical trials. This new website portal explains how clinical trials work, how and where to enroll in a clinical trial and what to expect as a clinical trial participant. This includes information on the different phases of clinical trials and why diversity is important for the best outcome. Our goal is to allay any fears or anxieties surrounding participation in clinical trials and open the door for traditionally underrepresented populations to become more involved, improving outcomes for clinical trials.
Q: Under your leadership, BIO has launched the BIOEquality Agenda to ensure that a greater share of the opportunities created by biotechnology (including health, lifestyle, and economic benefits) are realized by women and communities of color. Can you share more about your goals, and the progress that remains to be made in terms of equitable distribution of opportunity — as measured by SBIR awards, and other important metrics?
MMH: I truly believe science can help our nation address inequity in many forms. Our BIOEquality Agenda aims to address systemic disparities across the healthcare sector that disproportionately affect communities of color and other marginalized groups. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear existing inequities within marginalized communities, including under-representation in clinical trials, unequal access to care, and lack of trust within communities of color.
It will take a long-term, coordinated response to address this problem, and the BIOEquality Agenda is our starting point. With this initiative we would like to see tangible results in the form of greater diversity in clinical trials, more equitable representation in STEM fields, and ample health resources for underserved communities.
The Small Business Innovation Research and the Small Business Technology Transfer programs will also play an important role in addressing inequity. As one of the country’s largest sources of early-stage capital for technology commercialization, they help grow and support promising technologies in the private sector and therefore enable life-saving innovations to reach consumer markets.
That scale — and that life-saving potential — are why diverse companies and leaders need to know how to navigate these programs and their sometimes-complicated application process. And to be honest, it’s why we as an industry must continue to increase diversity, inclusion and equity in our research and development efforts.
Q: In an interview this year, you shared that “we have to make sure that the scientific progress is reaching everyone who needs it, particularly the vulnerable communities that may need it more than anyone else.” What counsel would you give executives at biotechnology firms (whether they work at large corporations, or are founders of early-stage companies) who are striving to improve their firms’ performance when it comes to health equity — and diversity, equity, and inclusion?
MMH: I remember when my father was ill and he was being treated in one of the Texas Medical Center hospitals in Houston. It was a gleaming, beautiful hospital that had a baby grand piano in the lobby and marble floors. When I would visit him, I sometimes would go down into the tunnels to get food from one of the other connected hospitals. In some, the patients appeared to be 90% Black. Yet when I returned to the gleaming baby grand piano hospital, I would rarely see a person of color. Those hospitals are just a few blocks away from each other. I often hear, “well, our academic medical centers aren’t located where patients of color can reach them.” But perhaps they’re not welcoming those patients in the door. We need to think outside the box to reengineer how we operate to really address this issue.
It starts with leadership. Boardrooms and C-suites need to reflect the populations that companies are hoping to serve. Workforces, as well, should be as inclusive as possible. The goal of inclusion does more than just “level the playing field.” It makes good business sense and helps organizations grow and prosper. Addressing the health challenges of today’s world requires maximum inspiration, innovation, and perseverance. More diversity increases our chances of solving the greatest problems.
Q: What breakthrough innovations in healthcare delivery or technology excite you most?
MMH: At the heart of BIO’s mission is to be the voice of and for science. This means breaking down barriers to innovative and lifesaving treatments by helping scientists be creative and be successful. We have gone up against a deadly pandemic that has really emphasized the importance of scientific innovation in our everyday lives.
Beyond the monumental achievement of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, there are countless other innovations in the pipeline that have great potential. Advancements in CRISPR and gene editing therapies, for instance, show how scientists are looking to treat and cure deadly diseases as well as accelerate diagnostics for said diseases.
Beyond healthcare, CRISPR applications are also making waves in agriculture, speeding up the process of cross-breeding plants and animals that farmers have practiced for centuries. There are countless other instances of how society benefits when we support science. I very much look forward to working alongside our industry to usher in the next generation of cures, treatments, and other innovations. moment.
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