Friday, Oct 1, 2021

BLUE KNIGHT™: Building the Shield to Protect Vulnerable Populations

Rachel Rath, MBA, MPHDirector, BARDA Alliance, Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS

Sandeep Patel, PhDDirector of Division of Research, Innovation, Ventures at BARDA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

HLTH Foundation

No two people are the same. Not only do our genetic make-ups differ, but also the choices we make and the choices that are made for us – including education, employment, how we live, where we live – are among the many variables that influence our health outcomes. Furthermore, as we progress from infant, child, to adult, and older adult, our vulnerabilities to disease also drastically change. 

These differences can cause vastly disproportionate experiences to shared public health crises. While public health crises impact everyone, rarely are there one-size-fits-all solutions across all populations. So how can we be better prepared to protect all people, particularly high-risk populations, from known and unknown pathogens and their consequences? 

A more prepared future is one that’s equipped with inclusive medical countermeasures (MCMs) that can shield diverse populations from emerging pathogens.1 Forging this future could start today with the help of BLUE KNIGHT™ – a joint initiative between Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS (‘JLABS’) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). 

Joining Forces to Support Startups Through the ‘Valley of Death’

BARDA’s remit is clear: it aims to develop and make available MCMs that address the consequences of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats, pandemic influenza and emerging infectious diseases.2 One of its main objectives is to equip entrepreneurs at any stage with the tools necessary to enable the successful development of innovative approaches against health threats. This goal directly supports the mandate of its parent organization, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). ASPR is tasked with leading the U.S. in “preparing for, responding to, and recovering from the adverse health effects of emergencies and disasters by supporting our communities’ ability to withstand adversity, strengthening our health and response systems, and enhancing national health security.”2

When it comes to global infectious diseases, no one community can be completely safe until all communities are safe – so the development of future MCMs must both recognize health equity gaps and work to solve them. The Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies is supporting this goal with its Race to Health Equity, recognizing urgency to expand and accelerate commitment and momentum to eradicating racial and social injustices. One aim is to forge collaborations that have the potential to foster better outcomes and profoundly change the trajectory of health for humanity. 

Through Blue Knight, the strengths of our two impactful organizations fuse together to build an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem. We aim to help guide startups past the “valley of death,” by connecting them with our networks, incubating ideas and encouraging residents to address the needs of multiple populations, particularly those most vulnerable or at-risk.

Breaking Down Silos to Build Up Solutions

COVID-19 exposed many substantial, underlying health inequities, including disparities among racial and socioeconomic minorities, elderly populations, immunocompromised patients, and those in rural or underserved communities.3,4 We believe innovators must understand the unique needs of different populations and develop bespoke approaches to address these population-specific gaps.

Blue Knight aims to support innovation across the full preparedness spectrum—from detection to prevention, treatment, and prediction. These approaches expand beyond traditional classes of MCM products (e.g., therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines), and leverage emerging science and technology that support the development of next generation MCMs. 

One key area of opportunity is accelerating diversity and inclusion within clinical trials. Acclinate, Inc., a Blue Knight company based at JLABS @ Washington, DC, aims to tackle this with their HIPAA compliant platform utilizing predictive analytics and machine learning to identify diverse individuals most likely to participate in research.5 The company pairs their technology with an intentional, phased approach to educating and empowering diverse individuals by improving access to relevant and reputable resources. 

Another area of focus for Blue Knight is designing better solutions to protect vulnerable populations on either side of the age continuum. 

Individuals with a lower immune response—including our older adult populations—may be at increased risk if vaccines are less effective at enhancing their immunity. 7 Hills Pharma, a Blue Knight company residing at JLABS @ TMC in Houston, Texas, aims to address this challenge with a first-in-class oral adjuvant that enhances antigen-specific immune responses and may increase the effectiveness of infectious disease vaccines for geriatric populations.6 The lead compound, 7HP349 allosteric activator, is in Phase 1 clinical testing. 

While COVID-19 initially put older adults at risk,3 what if the next pathogen is of greatest threat to our children? Children represent 22% of the country’s population,7 and more importantly, they’re the future. Despite this, we rarely design solutions specifically for the unique physiology and care requirements of children – leaving children with far fewer medical options.

From solutions tailored to all vulnerable age groups to addressing heightened infection severity due to pre-existing conditions or poor access to quality care – we need solutions for all.

Moving Towards More Equitable Preparedness Together 

When the needs of certain populations remain unmet, such as when MCMs, by nature of their design, are easier to deploy in more densely populated urban areas (e.g., due to cold-chain storage requirements or reliance on specialized health care workers to administer), it can undermine overall effectiveness and make us all vulnerable. To be prepared for the next global threat, we feel we must prioritize this public health issue and be visionary in developing inclusive, population-centric solutions.

If you’re working on potential preparedness solutions for vulnerable populations, sign up to share your startup’s approach with Blue Knight

(1) The White House. American Pandemic Preparedness Report. Accessed: Sept 2021. 

(2) U.S. HSS. BARDA Strategic Plan. Accessed: September 2021.  

(3) CDC. COVID-19 People With Certain Medical Conditions. Accessed: Sept 2021. 

(4) CDC. Introduction to COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. Accessed: Sept 2021.  

(5) Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS Navigator. Acclinate, Inc. Accessed: Sept 2021. 

(6) Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS Navigator. 7 Hills Pharma. Accessed: Sept 2021. 

(7) Children’s Defense Fund. The State of America’s Children. Accessed: Sept 2021. 

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