From The Editor | July 21, 2022

Novartis Lights A Beacon Of Hope For Diversity And Inclusion

Ed Miseta

By Ed Miseta, Chief Editor, Clinical Leader


In June 2022 Novartis announced the expansion of its Beacon of Hope program. The program is a 10-year, multimillion dollar program being conducted in collaboration with 26 historically Black colleges, universities, medical schools, Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) and other key partners. The goal is to create programs and alliances which address systemic health disparities across the research and medical development ecosystem. A key goal of the alliance is to increase diversity in clinical trial participants and investigators.

I spoke to Patrice Matchaba, MD, Head of US Corporate Responsibility at Novartis, and President of the Novartis US Foundation, to learn more about Beacon of Hope.

Ed Miseta: Why was this the right time to launch the Beacon of Hope collaboration, and what does Novartis hope will be accomplished by it?

Patrice Matchaba: The Beacon of Hope Collaboration is our bold response to a problem that we simply cannot ignore: health disparities rooted in systemic racism. The exclusion of Black people from the research and development ecosystem – which was in place long before the Covid-19 pandemic hit – has created a situation that produces mistrust and delays access to life-saving innovative medicines and effective treatments, while further widening the racial disparities in care that have impacted communities of color for generations.

We must recognize that there is a crucial underlying trust issue embedded here. So, it is not surprising that Black patients are not participating in clinical trials. When you dig a little deeper, you see that for a long time Black investigators have been excluded from the R&D process. It is a complex challenge to address and there is no single, easy solution. That is why Novartis and the Novartis US Foundation created Beacon of Hope, our 10-year collaboration with 26 HBCUs and Medical Schools, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), Coursera, the National Medical Association – as well as pharmaceutical industry leaders Merck and Sanofi.

We believe the concerted efforts of diverse stakeholders across both the public and private sectors to co-create enduring solutions is what is necessary to drive a true paradigm shift in health equity. This is a long-term endeavor, and it will take a sustained ‘push’ from industry, academia, and the underserved communities themselves to tackle the root causes of disparities in health and education – but we can make it happen if we work together.

Miseta: How will the partnerships being developed with Black colleges and universities help create greater diversity in trials?

Matchaba: Most clinical trial diversity programs focus on recruitment of diverse patients as trial subjects. However, we know one critical barrier to diverse patient recruitment is a lack of diverse clinical trial investigators. Beacon of Hope is designed to help build trust with underserved communities by creating more diversity throughout the entire health research ecosystem.

Patients are more trusting when they see people who resemble themselves at the doctor or at the hospital undergoing procedures. The same is true when patients of color are being recruited for clinical trials. In essence, when you increase the number of patients who participate, then you make an impact on their health outcomes and you win their trust. This will be particularly important the next time we have another public health crisis like COVID-19, or when we have another dreaded disease that requires the rapid adoption of new medicines.

Miseta: What will be the goal of the Clinical Trial Centers of Excellence – and how will the additional $17 million investment be used?

Matchaba: The additional $17.7 million commitment over the course of 10 years will support the establishment of three new digitally enabled Clinical Trial Centers of Excellence at each HBCU medical school: Howard University College of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. Each Center of Excellence will conduct studies by investigators and trial managers of color and enroll participants from underrepresented populations.

We are excited that the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Clinical Trial Center of Excellence we helped establish with our original Beacon of Hope grants last year is now operational. That school will initiate its first study with Novartis on a clinical trial evaluating a cholesterol management pathway in patients on maximally tolerated statin therapy who have also experienced a recent acute coronary syndrome event. This is critically important because African Americans are 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic whites, and LDL-C management is key to addressing the coronary heart disease mortality rate among African Americans. The Center of Excellence is also evaluating additional Novartis clinical trials including breast cancer and prostate cancer studies.

The ultimate goal of these Clinical Trial Centers of Excellence is to build trust, increase diversity and inclusivity in clinical trials to represent the U.S. population more accurately, and contribute to improved health outcomes for people of color.

Miseta: Sanofi and Merck are also engaged in this effort. What will their role be?

Matchaba: We are delighted to have Sanofi and Merck sign on to Beacon of Hope to conduct their clinical trials through the four Historically Black Medical School Clinical Trial Centers of Excellence as well.

Each organization will bring its own expertise and resources to design and implement enduring solutions to health disparities. These solutions will be co-created with community stakeholders. It is a team effort in every sense of the word, and we welcome other like-minded companies and organizations to join us in creating this true paradigm shift in health equity.

Miseta: What is the Beacon of Hope Summer Fellowship Program? What will it attempt to do? And how might that investment help increase diversity in clinical trials? 

Matchaba: We are hosting a 10-week paid summer fellowship program at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Cambridge, MA this summer for students from Historically Black Medical Schools to learn drug discovery, data analytics, and clinical research practices. Each student will be paired with a Novartis scientist mentor to gain first-hand experience running innovative research, science, and technology projects. The program is expected to continue annually for 10 years, with the goal of training up to 250 scientists.

We have also created a series of Beacon of Hope scholarships, mentorships, and grants in collaboration with a $20 million grant from the Novartis US Foundation to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF). TMCF and the Novartis US Foundation recently awarded ten $25,000 grants to HBCU faculty for research substantiating key drivers of health disparities and informing areas for change. Together we plan to continue to award 10 research grants annually for 10 years.

In August, TMCF and the Novartis US Foundation plan to award three-year scholarships of $10,000 a year to 120 students at 26 Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Each scholarship recipient will be paired with a Novartis mentor for three years to help them navigate their academic career and professional future. TMCF and Novartis US Foundation expect to award additional three-year scholarships again in 2025 and 2028. An additional 280 students will be paired with mentors in each three-year cohort, with the goal of mentoring up to 1,200 students over 10 years.

These programs under Beacon of Hope aim to help cultivate the next generation of Black and African American medical leaders by creating equitable access to high-quality education and professional development, specifically in health and science-related fields.