The Janssen/Drexel 4D Fellowship: From Idea to Impact
After the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, as was true for many people, Fei Shen, PhD, pharmacology and physiology ’16, began thinking about what he could do to support antiracism efforts in his field of drug discovery and development. He considered how he could use his position at Janssen Research & Development, LLC (Janssen) to make change. Less than six months later, the Janssen/Drexel “4D” (Diversity in Drug Discovery and Development) Fellowship was born.
Shen, a principal scientist and oncology therapeutic program lead at Janssen, reached out to Olimpia Meucci, MD, PhD, professor and chair of Drexel’s Department of Pharmacology & Physiology, with the idea to create a fellowship that would pay tuition and a cost-of-living stipend for students underrepresented in biomedical sciences1 who want to earn a master’s degree in pharmacology and physiology or drug discovery and development at the College of Medicine. This unique collaboration would provide funding and additional mentorship to deserving underrepresented students, while they receive the same exceptional education and hands-on training as other students in these master’s programs.
Fei Shen, PhD
Unlike many fields of biomedicine, a master’s can be a terminal degree for those entering the field of drug discovery. And unlike PhD students, those in master’s programs almost always pay out of pocket for their education, in addition to living expenses. Funding can be a critical barrier to entry for students with limited financial means.
Despite efforts in the industry to promote diversity, there is more work to be done. “There are a lot of efforts to recruit more diverse talent, and it’s helping for sure, but I think one of the root causes is that talented minority students want to get into this community, but they just can’t support their education financially,” Shen notes. “That’s why I think it’s really important for us to offer support to students who just graduated from undergrad.”
While it’s understood that diversity and inclusion benefit individual companies and the broader industry, the need in the field of drug discovery is especially poignant. People of color continue to be less likely than white people to participate in clinical trials. In a 2019 article in JAMA Oncology2, it was noted that Black and Hispanic participants were routinely underrepresented in oncology trials. Moreover, these trials often did not report race at all. In a 2020 JAMA Network Open3 article, Black, Native and Hispanic people were found to be underrepresented in vaccine trials between 2011 and 2020. Only 58.3% of these studies even reported race.
The medical industry has excluded and harmed people of color; this may be one of the reasons for their lack of representation in pharmaceutical research and clinical trials. But this exclusion and harm, and the resulting distrust these communities experience toward the health care system, are only part of the problem. Other factors include language barriers, difficulty with transportation, stringent exclusion criteria for trials and lack of access to specialists who might connect patients with trials.
Adequate representation in clinical trials is the only way to ensure that drugs are safe and effective for all populations. As the JAMA Oncology study authors note, “Representative racial/ethnic participation in research, especially in clinical trials that establish standards of care, is necessary to minimize disparities in outcomes.”
While diversifying the pharmaceutical industry will not fix all of these issues, it is a critical step. Having people from underrepresented backgrounds at every stage of the drug discovery process will help the industry be more inclusive in its recruitment of patients from those backgrounds.
WHAT IS THE FELLOWSHIP?
The fellowship will cover tuition, health insurance and support for living expenses for three students who have been accepted into Drexel’s Drug Discovery & Development or Pharmacology & Physiology master’s degree programs. The initial plan was to accept two fellows, but when applications were reviewed, three outstanding candidates were identified and accepted. For the 2021–2023 program, the fellowship will be geared toward those entering these master’s programs with an interest in oncology. “There is room for expansion in the future, though.” Shen says, “We are starting small, just so that we know how to do it right, so that we design the best experience for the fellows. Once we know how to do it, we can expand not only in numbers, but potentially to other therapeutic areas as well.”
In addition to removing the financial burdens of getting a master’s degree, the fellowship includes an option for students to do their thesis work partly or entirely under the mentorship of scientists at Janssen, if they choose a thesis track. All 4D fellows will have access to mentorship and guidance from Janssen scientists and senior leadership members, in addition to the mentorship all students in these master’s programs receive from Drexel faculty. This sets the fellowship apart from others that cover expenses but don’t have a mentorship component.
“We’re trying to tailor this to ensure the fellow can be successful for future career development,” says Shen. “The student can choose to do their thesis research completely at Janssen. We will expose the fellows to every step of the drug discovery pipeline. It’s real-world training: Get the drug in your hand, see how it was developed from an idea all the way to a preclinical candidate, through phase 1, 2 and 3, to launch. The fellow can talk to people from different functional areas and gain that real-world experience.”
The goal is to set up a clear path to success for minority students who are interested in a pharmaceutical industry career. While job placement with Janssen post-graduation is not a guarantee for fellows, Shen notes that Janssen sees this fellowship as a win not just for improving diversity in their industry, but also as a direct benefit to the organization, as they will be training talented scientists who may choose to start their careers at Janssen after graduation.
MEET THE INAUGURAL 4D FELLOWS
MAKING IT HAPPEN
When Shen came to Meucci with the idea for the fellowship, Meucci was immediately supportive. “I welcomed the opportunity, as it offered not only a great means to address an urgent social and scientific problem, but also a vehicle to enhance translational research within the department and the college. This has been a main priority for me, and it perfectly aligns with Drexel’s culture of community impact and translation,” she notes.
Next, Shen needed buy-in from the leadership at Janssen. He says the most challenging part was figuring out who to talk to. Once he was in touch with the right people, they were entirely on board. He recalls, “Everyone from Janssen and Drexel was extremely supportive.”
“We are excited to join Drexel in this goal to grow the next generation of diverse talent,” says Margaret Yu, MD, vice president and Prostate Cancer Disease Area leader at Janssen.
“When Fei proposed the idea of the 4D Fellowship, I was impressed with his vision and happy to support the joint effort between Janssen and Drexel,” says Joe Erhardt, PhD, vice president, Oncology Discovery and Scientific Partnership at Janssen. “This fellowship will expose talented young minority graduate students to promising opportunities in industry, and their diverse perspectives will enrich our drug development programs.”
The process of creating an agreement between Drexel and Janssen took less than six months. This is unusually fast for collaborations of this nature. While all parties were enthusiastic about the idea, there was no existing model for this kind of 50/50 partnership between Drexel and Janssen.
“Fei and I were able to work closely and relentlessly to make sure we made progress in a timely manner,” says Meucci. “As the head of the department, I was relatively independent and able to run things at my own pace. Since Fei also had autonomy and Janssen leadership’s support, we could move quickly. This is a model that should be encouraged both in academia and industry.”
The fellowship advisory committee, co-chaired by Alessandro Fatatis, MD, PhD, professor of pharmacology and physiology — who was also Shen’s mentor at Drexel — and Brent Rupnow, oncology senior director at Janssen R&D, will work closely with selected fellows, providing both academic and industrial guidance, in addition to selecting the fellows.
“The committee has chosen three excellent fellows from the pool of applicants, two in the Pharmacology & Physiology program and one in Drug Discovery & Development,” Meucci notes. “Given the tight timeline, this outcome exceeds our initial expectations!”
1. The fellowship is open to anyone who qualifies as underrepresented according to NIH guidelines. Learn more at diversity.nih.gov/about-us/population-underrepresented.
2. Loree, J.M. et al. “Disparity of Race Reporting and Representation in Clinical Trials Leading to Cancer Drug Approvals from 2008 to 2018.” JAMA Oncology, 2019;5(10):e191870.
3. Flores, L.E. et al. “Assessment of the Inclusion of Racial/Ethnic Minority, Female, and Older Individuals in Vaccine Clinical Trials.” JAMA Network Open, 2021;4(2):e2037640.
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