“When people think of research, they think of UW-Madison or Aurora in Milwaukee,” said Laura Strong, development director at Exact Sciences. “But Wisconsin is building up capacity in places like Gundersen La Crosse and far beyond that.”

Strong joined PhRMA Senior Director Peter Fjelstad and patient advocate Paul Westrick yesterday to discuss the scientific and economic impact of Wisconsin’s pharmaceutical research during a Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce webinar. Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, also spoke about research-related provisions in the 2021-2023 state budget.

Nearly 500 clinical research trials are currently running in Wisconsin. About half of the trials focus on cancer treatment while the others focus on chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, stroke and heart disease, Strong said. Nearly one in six Americans suffer from a chronic disease, according to the CDC.

“Just thinking that clinical trials are for people without options is a sad place to start,” Strong said. “They can be for anyone and even help develop treatments that will improve lives in the future.”

The financial burden of traveling to research clinics is a common barrier to participation, said Westrick, who has been a patient in various trials over the past 20 years. In March 2020, the state Legislature passed a bill that created a reimbursement program for cancer patients participating in clinical trials.

Due to the pandemic, some clinics have shifted to a virtual format. Advancements in telemedicine would provide patients more opportunities to participate in studies, Westrick said.

“Wisconsin’s in a good place,” Westrick said. “There are many trials available, and the extra attention you get as a trial participant is as good, if not better than standard care.”

Clinical trials are vital to developing new treatments and to growing Wisconsin’s economy, said PhRMA’s Fjelstad. According to him, U.S. companies spent $83 billion on non-COVID-related medical research in 2020. PhRMA, or the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, represents biopharmaceutical companies across the country.

The Joint Finance Committee’s proposed 2021-2023 budget would increase the state’s research and development tax credit by 15 percent, LeMahieu said.

“The increase in R&D credit will draw in more young talent,” LeMahieu said. “The increased reimbursement in health care will improve an already strong health care system.”

Organizations like PhRMA plan to improve clinical trials by having a more diverse pool of participants and researchers that reflect Wisconsin’s population demographics. PhRMA wants to reduce vaccine hesitancy through educating communities about the FDA approval process, Fjelstad said.