Jennifer Byrne is the founder of Greater Gift, a nonprofit 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.
An estimated two million people globally take part in clinical trials annually, but according to Byrne, that number is a mere fraction of the 58 million volunteers needed to fulfill demand.
Greater Gift was started as part of PMG, where Byrne worked as chief executive officer. With the help of Amanda Wright, now executive director of Greater Gift and a former colleague of Byrne’s from PMG, the pair began piecing together the nonprofit.
“As an organization, [PMG] had been very interested in how we could better connect with patients,” said Wright. “We were at a point where we thought there was something still missing in those interactions.” This thought sparked their search.
From that spark, Byrne and Wright 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.
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 Byrne left PMG in early 2017 to focus on running Greater Gift full-time, she relocated the nonprofit to Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. She, Wright 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.
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,” said Byrne. “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.
“What Greater Gift does is connect our partners with giving back and thanking people for their time and effort,” added Hayes. “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.”
Byrne believes moving to the Innovation Quarter puts Greater Gift in a hotbed of innovation for clinical research. Being there means that the nonprofit is located in the middle of an environment rich with collaborators: life science startups 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.
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.
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.