At the Wisconsin Biohealth Summit on Thursday, women leaders took the stage to discuss what it will take to ensure that their growing industry serves and includes the full diversity of the country.

The session, entitled “Women Leading & Evolving the Wisconsin Biohealth Industry,” was the first in a day of activities at the Overture Center for the Arts hosted by industry advocacy group BioForward Wisconsin.

The first session included Pat Setji, general manager of screening at Exact Sciences; Betsy Nugent, chief clinical research officer at UW Health and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health; and Ayesha Ahmed, general counsel and vice president of human resources at Nexus Pharmaceuticals.

Pat Setji described Exact Sciences’ fast growth since its founding in 2014. The company, which specializes in detecting cancer in its early stages to allow more treatment options for patients, has screened more than 6 million people for colorectal cancer with its at-home Cologuard test. Now, in part by acquiring other cancer-detection companies, Exact Sciences aims to develop tests for the 70% of cancers for which there are currently no screening options. 

But the company is also working to get its existing tests into the hands of more people of color. African Americans are 20% more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 40% more likely to die from it than most other U.S. groups. The disease made headlines last August when actor Chadwick Boseman died at 43 after being diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2016. 

“We can do much better, especially in the underserved populations … There are so many barriers right now for getting screened,” Setji said, especially for those who have lower incomes, live in rural areas or struggle to get to a doctor for other reasons.

To fill the gap, Exact Sciences has launched a health equity team and funded public awareness campaigns targeted to medically vulnerable communities. “There’s so much work to be done in this area. And we know it’s going to take all of us to make a difference here,” Setji said.

For Betsy Nugent, an epidemiologist who oversees the development and accreditation of clinical trials at UW Health, one way to promote equity in biohealth is to ensure that the patients participating in clinical trials for new drugs reflect the diversity of the local community. 

It’s not easy, she said, pointing to a variety of historical incidents ranging from human experiments at Nazi concentration camps to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment — in which doctors withheld from Black men a known cure, opting instead to watch as the often-fatal disease progressed — to the lesser-known story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose tumor cells were collected and cloned without her family’s knowledge, producing a human cell line still used by researchers around the world 70 years later.  

“Clinical trials have a long history, and probably well earned, of not being a great partner with diverse populations,” Nugent said. “So we’ve got some real work to do in these areas.”

COVID-19 vaccinations demanded UW Health roll out clinical trials faster than usual, but Nugent said her staff managed to recruit a group of participants who matched the demographics of the Dane County area. 

“I think part of what has helped us is actually getting our investigators in the field, going to community centers, going to churches, going to tribal council meetings, and meeting with people answering their questions, making sure that they understand what we’re trying to achieve,” Nugent said. “I think that has had a great impact.”

Also important, Nugent said, is diversifying the set of people conducting those trials — or doing any other type of biomedical research. For her, that means participating in youth science fairs to show kids the range of science careers available, and the range of people making important contributions in those fields. 

“Things like clinical trials or epidemiology are not what you think about when you’re 12 years old, but they could be really, really exciting careers for kids.

“Young girls tend to think about nursing or medicine, but they may not think about the spectrum of chemistry or medical physics or clinical research,” Nugent said. “Particularly in diverse communities, I think it’s really important for people to be able to see people that look like them that are doing really great work and get inspired by that.”

The child of two chemists, Ayesha Ahmed grew up knowing that women could play key roles in science. “I’ve been surrounded by incredible women that I’ve been so fortunate to learn from,” said Ahmed, who attended law school and worked in litigation before joining Nexus Pharmaceuticals, the company her parents founded. 

Based in Lincolnshire, Illinois, Nexus devises simpler ways to make difficult-to-manufacture drugs, and it will soon be manufacturing injectable drugs at a new 84,000-square-foot facility in Pleasant Prairie. Manufacturing drugs in the U.S. can help the country ensure the quality and steady supply of the product, Ahmed said, noting the drug shortages that resulted during the pandemic when foreign suppliers stopped exporting. 

But building a strong domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing industry requires Americans taking a seat at the lab bench or factory line. 

“There’s still a lot of departments — in particular, chemistry — where we don’t see a lot of students wanting to go in that direction,” Ahmed said. “That’s really going to hurt companies, not just like Nexus, but pharmaceutical companies throughout the country.”

The U.S. can’t just rely on students from abroad, Ahmed said. “We need to get kids excited in the U.S. about wanting to be chemists or biologists or microbiologists.” 

That, she said, is why Nexus has partnered with the University of Wisconsin system to offer lab tours and show students how they can put their science knowledge to use. “If you decide to be a chemist, you can work in a laboratory like this. You can make a medication that’s used hundreds of times a day,” Ahmed tells students. 

“It’s just very purposeful and impactful for folks to see that what (they) do matters, and that starting a career like this can really lead to something very fruitful and purposeful.”

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