Researchers launched a major study of an experimental Alzheimer's drug this summer. They also learned a lot about how to protect participants who must make frequent visits to a medical center.



When COVID-19 arrived, medical centers put a lot of research studies on hold. Now scientists are finding ways to safely continue clinical trials despite the pandemic. NPR's Jon Hamilton has more.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Getting people to sign up for research studies was really hard back in July, when COVID-19 seemed to be everywhere. And that's when Josh Grill, a researcher at the University of California Irvine, began recruiting people for a nationwide study of a potential Alzheimer's drug.

JOSH GRILL: It's been a struggle, of course.

HAMILTON: Grill is part of the AHEAD Study, which will show whether a drug called BAN2401 can prevent or delay Alzheimer's. He says participants in this sort of research make a big commitment even without a pandemic going on.

GRILL: We're asking people to do a lot, including enroll in long studies that require numerous visits and, in the AHEAD Study, taking an investigational drug or placebo that's injected into a vein.

HAMILTON: Every visit represents a potential exposure to the coronavirus, and Grill says that's a sobering thought when you're recruiting people as old as 80.

GRILL: We do study the population that is at greatest risk for negative health outcomes when it comes to COVID.

HAMILTON: So like other research centers, UC Irvine has implemented a long list of safety measures. Grill says medical staff get daily screenings, patient visits are spaced out, exam rooms get extra cleaning, and personal protective equipment is the norm.

GRILL: We think we can minimize that risk to an extent necessary to be able to move these studies forward and that it's urgent that we do that.

HAMILTON: Grill says the measures appear to be working, and participants are showing up.

GRILL: I've just been completely, totally inspired by the people enrolled in these studies, the majority of whom really want us to push ahead.

HAMILTON: One ongoing challenge, though, is recruiting African Americans and Latinos. Crystal Glover is in charge of outreach at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago.

CRYSTAL GLOVER: They had heard about COVID. They heard we had patients there that were being treated for COVID. And they indicated that they did not want to come to our institution.

HAMILTON: So Glover, a social psychologist, has been offering some advice to research centers.

GLOVER: If we are looking to enroll folks now, we need to reach back out to the communities in which we already have relationships.

HAMILTON: Glover says for Rush, that has meant offering support and services before asking for participation.

GLOVER: We've had town halls. We've had PPE drives. We've had webinars on the proper use of PPE, food delivery, food drives.

HAMILTON: Glover says researchers also need to explain why a particular study matters to a specific community.

GLOVER: We know that these chronic diseases of aging are really impacting Blacks and Latinos at higher rates than non-Latino whites. I lead in with that. That's why this is relevant. It's not only relevant to you but also to your family and future generations.

HAMILTON: Glover says she's also trying some new tactics. One involves staging health and wellness events at laundromats that are owned by women and people of color and that serve essential workers. Glover says people who show up can wash their clothes for free in a place where social distancing is strictly maintained, and they may even learn a bit about research on Alzheimer's disease.

GLOVER: We have that information for them at the laundromat, but they get to wash their clothes and stay safe during COVID-19.

HAMILTON: Josh Grill of UC Irvine says efforts like that are crucial because when the pandemic is over, Alzheimer's will still be a huge problem. Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.