Low Minority Participation In Clinical Trials Reveals Historical, Social Issues

Aug 10, 2015

In this archival photo a doctor in the U.S. government's Tuskegee experiment injects a patient as part of the syphilis study.
Credit National Archives

Minority populations in the United States are at a greater risk of developing certain diseases like cancer, hypertension and other chronic illnesses. Yet these populations are commonly underrepresented in clinical trials, which serve as a major means of developing new drugs, treatment therapies, and even medical devices.

The underrepresentation of minorities in clinical trials is not a new phenomenon. Some in the medical community believe that the reluctance of African-Americans to participate in the trials stems from a grim page in U.S. history known as the Tuskegee experiment, which started in 1932.

The director of clinical trials at Morehouse School of Medicine, Dr. Priscilla Pemu, says the Tuskegee experiment has had an impact on minority participation in clinical trials, but she says there are other factors at play these days.
Credit Alison Guillory / WABE

In these experiments, the U.S. government did not properly treat black men who had syphilis. The government then did not provide penicillin to some of the 600 African-American men in the study. The study continued until 1972, even though penicillin was used to cure the sexually-transmitted disease by 1945.

The director of clinical trials at the Morehouse School of Medicine, Dr. Priscilla Pemu said during an interview on “A Closer Look” that the reluctance of minorities to participate in clinical trials cannot be attributed to one particular event, including the Tuskegee study.

“There definitely is that discomfort on the part of the community about whether they are going to be treated as guinea pigs or not, but the reason for low participation in trials is a little more nuanced than that now,” Pemu explained.

Pemu said people are more likely to take part in studies if their doctors know about the study and ask them to participate.

“So if we have people who are seen predominantly by minority physicians and those minority physicians don’t know about clinical trials or don’t have the infrastructure to participate in clinical trials, then the patients that are seen by that provider, of necessity, will not get the opportunity to take part in trials ... so that’s another layer of why minorities might not be participating in as great rates in clinical trials as the rest of the population,” she added.

Pemu discussed the Tuskegee experiment, the lack of diversity in clinical trials, the barriers to finding more minorities to participate in studies and more on “A Closer Look.”

WABE's Eboni Lemon, Rose Scott, and Denis O'Hayer contributed to this report.