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A Greater Gift: Advancing Clinical Research By Giving Back

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published by Wake Forest Innovation Quarter
When Jennifer Byrne looks out the window of her light-filled office at 525@vine in the Innovation Quarter, she sees more than landscaping and buildings. She sees more than doctors, students and faculty as they walk by.

What she sees is the future of clinical research.

Jennifer is the founder of Greater Gift, a non-profit organization that facilitates the donation of vaccines in honor of clinical research participants. Seeing students walk by every day on the way to class, she envisions the impact that these future doctors, physician assistants and certified nurses can have on their patients—not only through patient care, but also through promoting clinical research.

“These students are the future of clinical research,” says Jennifer. “It is their influence that will help clinical research succeed through the sacrifice and dedication of volunteers. And we have such a great need for clinical trial participants to help advance medical care.”

Jennifer founded Greater Gift six years ago to address that need by finding a creative way to encourage participation in clinical trials for the growing number of medical devices, technologies and drugs in development.

“At Greater Gift, we believe that people who participate in clinical trials are giving an incredible gift, and we want to recognize that in a tangible way by giving a ‘greater gift’ in their honor,” Jennifer says.

In this case, that greater gift is a vaccine donated to a child in a developing country.

A Great Need

An estimated two million people globally take part in clinical trials annually, but according to Jennifer, that number is a mere fraction of the 58 million volunteers needed to fulfill demand.

“I believe strongly that we have a societal obligation to bring forth clinical research as a care option for all patients,” Jennifer says. “At the end of the day, advancements in medicine come down to patient volunteers.”

Major medical advances—such as the reduction in the number of children who die from leukemia—wouldn’t have been possible without clinical trial volunteers. New therapeutics or medical procedures do not get approved without people participating in clinical trials.

“Each individual participant is a significant, valuable contributor to the drug development process,” says Jennifer.

Jennifer has a deep experience in clinical research, spending three decades working in this field. She moved to Winston-Salem in 1989 to work for PMG, which today operates a network of clinical research facilities in the Carolinas, Tennessee and Illinois. During her tenure, PMG was involved in 7,500 clinical trials that included around 150,000 clinical trial participants.

“In my clinical research career, I didn’t start as a chief executive officer; I started as a clinical research coordinator and over the years got to work with hundreds of patients and what I learned was that many people entered into clinical trials knowing very little about it,” Jennifer says.

She also learned that patients often did not participate in clinical trials at all: some because their doctors were unfamiliar with clinical trials and didn’t raise it as an option, others because they didn’t believe they’d ever benefit from the drugs in trial. It can take an average of 12 to 14 years in the U.S. for a drug to go from development to clinical testing to Food and Drug Administration approval.

“Despite the challenges, I saw firsthand the benefits of participating in clinical trials,” Jennifer says. “Once patients participated, they left the trial much more informed about their conditions and the importance of complying with prescribed medications.”

These clinical trials also enabled many treatments to get approved and become a new standard of care for patients on a widespread scale.

A Good Beginning

Greater Gift was started as part of PMG, where Jennifer worked as chief executive officer. With the help of Amanda Wright, now executive director of Greater Gift and a former colleague of Jennifer’s from PMG, the pair began piecing together the non-profit.

“As an organization, [PMG] had been very interested in how we could better connect with patients,” says Amanda. “We were at a point where we thought there was something still missing in those interactions.”

This thought sparked their search.

From that spark, Jennifer and Amanda found inspiration from a number of factors, including roundtable insights from PMG’s patient base and personal interactions that they had over the course of their careers.

Right around this time, TOMS® was launched, and a friend sent an article about the company to Jennifer, which she shared with Amanda. After learning about the TOMS® model where the company donated a pair of shoes for every pair it sold, Jennifer thought a similar model might help alleviate the shortage of clinical trial volunteers. If they could tap into patients’ altruistic tendencies, they might just be able to accomplish two great things with a single effort.

“When Jennifer presented the idea, it immediately made sense to people,” says Amanda.

After Jennifer pitched the idea to Amanda and a few of their colleagues, it didn’t take long for Greater Gift to get off the ground. For the first years of its life, the non-profit was run out of the PMG offices.

“It was amazing to see how patients responded to having a vaccine donated in their name,” Amanda says.

Since its inception, Greater Gift has coordinated the donation of over 80,000 vaccines to children in need worldwide, thanks to the volunteers who participate in clinical trials.

After Jennifer left PMG in early 2017 to focus on running Greater Gift full-time, she relocated the non-profit to Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. She, Amanda and Kevonna Hayes, Greater Gift’s senior program coordinator, work out of offices on the ground floor of the 525@vine building—right next to the corridor that ferries the “clinical researchers of the future” to their classes. 

A Better Connection

To make vaccine donations happen is a little more complicated than just signing up clinical trial volunteers. Greater Gift develops partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, research clinics and other organizations to help those companies encourage their patients to participate in trials. Those partners agree to fund a vaccine for each patient who enrolls with them.

When a volunteer takes part in a trial affiliated with one of Greater Gift’s partners, the program donates a vaccine through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a global health organization largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Greater Gift program supports the pentavalent vaccine, which covers five diseases including diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.

“We are the facilitator,” says Jennifer. “We link individual clinical site locations to Gavi, a partner we identified early on as an organization that aligned with Greater Gift’s mission. We provide financial support, and Gavi provides the boots-on-the-ground in the countries receiving the vaccines.”

Participants in the Greater Gift program receive a certificate of appreciation in addition to the vaccine donation, making the point that participating in a single clinical trial does make a difference.

“It makes a big difference when a patient is thanked in a tangible way,” says Amanda. “They receive immediate gratification for their participation because they helped give a lifesaving vaccine to somebody in the world.”

The program is also gratifying for the partnering organization.

“What Greater Gift does is connect our partners with giving back and thanking people for their time and effort,” adds Kevonna. “We are that philanthropic connector that links patients, companies, research sites and clinical research organizations. We are not only able to shed positive light on clinical research in general but also the companies that are trying to improve health.” 

A Greater Future

Jennifer believes moving to the Innovation Quarter puts Greater Gift in a hotbed of innovation for clinical research. Being here means that the non-profit is located in the middle of an environment rich with collaborators: life science start-ups moving products toward or into clinical research, researchers, educators and students who are participating in and learning about clinical trials and Clinical Ink, a group also born out of PMG that provides software solutions for clinical research sites and life science sponsors of clinical research.

“I can’t imagine a better place to be right now in the United States from a clinical research standpoint,” says Jennifer. “Innovation, here, is not just a term being used for marketing purposes. I think there is real substance behind creating this collaborative hub.”

Greater Gift is spearheading Winston-Salem’s participation in the Hero’s Journey™ Art Project, a three-piece art installation that honors clinical research participants. Anyone directly or indirectly impacted by clinical trials is invited to decorate wooden bricks with artistic representations of their clinical trial experiences. Artist John Magnan will incorporate all those wooden bricks into sculptures to be displayed in three cities in the United States.

“This project is a chance for everyone touched by clinical research to share their stories and be honored for their participation,” Jennifer says.

Winston-Salem has been chosen as one of the sites to receive one of the Hero’s Journey™ sculptures that pay tribute to the heroes of clinical trials. The artist, as well as representatives from Eli Lilly, the company underwriting the project, and community leaders of Winston-Salem will soon visit potential sites for the sculpture’s installation.

“Placing one of the Hero’s Journey™ sculptures in our city not only recognizes the voices of clinical trials participants across our nation but also acknowledges all the good work being done in our community to promote participation in clinical research,” says Jennifer, a mission that she marches forward as a part of Greater Gift, as well as the art project.

The new location for Greater Gift in 525@vine enables Jennifer to keep fulfilling the mission, while also hoping to spark the interest of the future medical professionals walking past the Greater Gift office and spur them to carry the work into the next generation.

“We need to find more and more creative ways of encouraging participation in clinical trials and proximity can be a great catalyst for that,” Jennifer says.

By forging closer connections with the tenants and students of the Innovation Quarter, Greater Gift contributes to the growing clinical trial community in Winston-Salem, a community that is having a global influence.

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