Diversity in Clinical Trials | City of Hope

Researcher receives fellowship supporting gender equity in health care

Nadia Carlesso, Ph.D., wants to advance diversity and inclusion in research, clinical trials and careers in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine
Nadia Carlesso
Nadia Carlesso, Ph.D.

As a member of the newest class of 24 women selected nationwide to participate in the Carol Emmott Fellowship, Nadia Carlesso, Ph.D., wants to take this unique and competitive opportunity to move the needle in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) on both sides of the research bench.

The Carol Emmott Foundation is a national nonprofit organization that is dedicated to achieving fully inclusive gender equality in health care leadership and governance. The fellowship includes a 14-month experience in which fellows can receive mentorship for their personal projects that support gender equity in health care.

Based on the Duarte, California, campus, Carlesso joined City of Hope in 2016. She is currently professor and chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

A Responsibility to Contribute

“As a scientist in the stem cell field and as chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, I feel the responsibility and commitment to contribute, in the measure I can, to decreasing health disparities in the areas of innovative cell and gene therapies,” said Carlesso, whose lab was recently awarded a $5.4 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to expand their stem cell research capabilities. 

Carlesso said health disparities exist in some part due to the prohibitive costs associated with getting treatment and participating in clinical trials.

“We are living in exciting times in terms of the progress and availability of cell and gene therapies — potentially curative therapies,” she said. “But these products have a high cost that can unfortunately widen the care gap. Access to innovative therapies is expensive for many complex reasons. As a community, scientists, technologists and health care professionals must come together to be part of the solution.”

More DEI in Science

There's no easy answer, and not a problem that will be resolved tomorrow, but the conversation has started within scientific circles, and Carlesso wants to further that dialogue and parlay it into actions that can truly make progress.

One step in the right direction is to increase diversity within the scientific community in all aspects, in the name of advancing clinical knowledge.

“City of Hope is a diverse and inclusive organization, and I would like to leverage that commitment,” Carlesso said. “The Emmott Fellowship has given me the opportunity to focus more intently on growing the diversity within our scientific environment.”

“Innovative biomedical research flourishes when people with different perspectives, experience and skills are empowered to explore new ideas and to work collaboratively and inclusively,” she continued. “Recruiting, training, retaining and nurturing a workforce representing all dimensions of diversity is critical for the development and implementation of leading-edge therapies that can reach underserved populations. These communities have not had their voices heard: Targeting these communities to be active participants of this specialized workforce and future leaders in this sector is key to decrease barriers to health equity.”

Increasing Knowledge of the Need

Another key step toward this goal is to increase awareness among these communities that their voices are important.

“There is not sufficient knowledge out there that they are needed,” Carlesso explained. “There are cultural biases that have to be overcome. If patients can see themselves in our medical and scientific staff, they will feel more represented and more comfortable that their best interests are at heart.”

As an Emmott Fellow, Carlesso said she has identified three areas that she wishes to address in her research project.

Driving the Data

“The first part is for me to get the numbers, to look at the current diversity within our clinical trials, within our GMP teams, clinical trial coordinators, research nurses, clinicians and basic scientists,” she said. “At any given time, we have more than 30 investigational new drug applications and 300 clinical trials going on. I want to take advantage of this ideal setting and generate a complete database of the progress we’ve made, the challenges we still face, and where the bottlenecks are that are compromising diversity and inclusion at all levels.”

Increasing Awareness in the Scientific Community

Establishing a discourse, conversations among peers, is essential to stimulate a reaction toward diversity in research that will benefit all of us, Carlesso said.

“A cohesive stem cell research community is critical not only to generate discoveries but also to bring awareness in health disparities and generate synergistic efforts to tackle this problem,” she said.

Expanding the STEM Pipeline

Carlesso maintained that we can empower patients by empowering a diverse workforce, and one way we can do that is to recruit individuals from diverse backgrounds into careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“A powerful way to give a voice to underserved communities and people of underrepresented backgrounds, and to mitigate health disparities, is to train a workforce that represents them,” she said. “If underserved families start to have kids going to high school and college doing internships in science and contemplating a carrier in nursing, biomanufacturing, research, then they will have more information, more access and will be less afraid to ask and to pursue more advanced therapeutic solutions or participate to clinical trials.”

Training the Next Generation

City of Hope is committed to training the next generation of leaders in stem cells, gene therapy and regenerative medicine, and in fostering an inclusive and safe environment that embraces diversity. Our laboratories host interns every year from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine bridge program, for example, and we recruit from all communities for our Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy. We also partner with California State Universities in our area and local high schools near the Duarte campus to grow the interest in STEM careers.

“As an organization, we need to know that our research has great potential and is helping to close the care gap between socially economically disadvantaged groups and others,” Carlesso said. “Knowing where we are now is important, so we can define where we are going and how we are going to get there.

“I am very excited and thankful to have been chosen for the Emmott Fellowship and the opportunities it represents,” she said. “I am thrilled and look forward to what I can learn, accomplish and change for the better in my work.”

Learn more about the Carol Emmott Fellowship, Carlesso and other members of the Class of 2024, here