Celebrating diversity and innovation: Highlights from the Winn Awards annual convening

February 22, 2024     

On a recent November weekend, about 150 clinical trialists and doctors, gathered in La Jolla, California. The occasion was the annual convening of the Robert A. Winn Diversity in Clinical Trials Award Program (Winn Awards). Established in 2020 with a $100 million commitment by the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation (BMS Foundation), an independent charitable entity, the Winn Awards aim to train and mentor clinical trialists and medical students who come from diverse backgrounds or have shown a commitment to diversity in clinical trials. This year’s annual convening, bringing together all of the current participants, marked the graduation of the first cohort of early-stage investigator physicians trained through the Winn Career Development Award (Winn CDA). Bristol Myers Squibb CEO and the BMS Foundation’s Chairman Chris Boerner spoke to the graduating class.

You all come from different backgrounds, hold different research interests, live in different places. But together you are bonded by your shared commitment to helping patients receive the best possible outcomes in their care. You are a part of a critical movement to ensure clinical trials, and the delivery of healthcare overall, reach the patients who need them most.
Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation Chairman Chris Boerner

The members of this first Winn CDA graduating class designed and advanced research projects to increase diversity in clinical trials and improve health equity, the results of which they presented as part of November’s annual convening. Here are some of their stories.

Sheldon L. Holder, MD, PhD

Dr. Holder is an assistant professor at Brown University, an attending physician at the Lifespan Cancer Institute, and a physician scientist at the Brown University Legorreta Cancer Center. Most recently, he was appointed as part of the Cancer Center’s DEI leadership.

One of the first issues Dr. Sheldon Holder encountered in his career was a lack of diversity in clinical trials. As an oncologist who maintains an active research laboratory, Dr. Holder’s work depends on having an accurate understanding of how treatments impact all of his patients. Among the biggest barriers to getting more diverse clinical trial participation is successfully sharing information about open trials to everyone who could benefit from them.

Dr. Holder tackled that challenge by using the support of the Winn CDA to establish the Color of Cancer — a groundbreaking storytelling project focused on communities of color in Providence, Rhode Island, and their experiences with cancer. The project produced a series of short films, which have been screened around the state, and organizes Cancer Talk Café, a regular meet & greet discussion event that gives community members the opportunity to discuss cancer and cancer treatment with clinicians from Brown’s Legorreta Cancer Center. 

“I believe, as most cancer experts do, that the best management for a patient with cancer is to be treated with a clinical trial,” says Dr. Holder. “I'm hoping that we can improve outcomes, that we can improve our cancer therapies for people from my communities. So that everyone can have the best care we are able to give at top-notch cancer centers.”

Sheldon L. Holder, MD, PhD

Dr. Rogers is an assistant professor at the University of Florida.

Growing up in an underserved community, Dr. Sherise Rogers knew she wanted to advance health equity before she learned the term. Today, as a medical oncologist and scientist, Dr. Rogers is focusing her career on addressing health disparities in communities like her own, and clinical trials work is central to that effort.

“We need to develop clinical trials that actually represent our patients,” says Dr. Rogers. “For example, pancreatic cancer is near and dear to my heart, and its incidence is extremely high in African Americans. But they represent only a small fraction of the patients in pancreatic cancer clinical trials. To me, that’s not acceptable, so I’m working to change that.”

With the support of the Winn CDA, Dr. Rogers launched a clinical trial examining the microbiome’s potential impact in pancreatic cancer. Along the way, she learned how to recruit a diverse group of patients for research, communicate with community members about the potential benefits, and found a network of peers undertaking their own trials through the Winn CDA who she could turn to for advice.

“My mission is to be a voice and advocate for my patients. Since I was a little girl, I saw disparities, and now I'm not so little,” says Dr. Rogers. “I actually have the tools now, the education, the resources, the team and the support to strive and be able to do the fundamental research and advocacy and policy change that comes along with health equity, and that makes an enormous difference.”