5 questions for … Dr. William Towner

William Towner, MD, FACP, FIDSA, is the regional physician director for the Division of Clinical Trials and leads the Clinician Investigator Program for the Southern California Permanente Medical Group. He also serves in a leadership role for HIV services at Kaiser Permanente Southern California. He was extensively involved in research on infectious diseases since 2000 and has been a principal investigator for 150 clinical trials at KPSC. Most recently, he has led multiple trials for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, including ongoing trials for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines in children.

How did you first become involved in clinical trials?

I first became involved in clinical trials in the early 2000s, starting with HIV studies. At that time, although HIV remained a very deadly and often fatal disease, there were new medications being developed that had the potential to keep our patients alive. As an HIV practitioner, I knew that I wanted to give my KPSC patients the same access to the exciting and potentially lifesaving medications that they could get at a traditional academic medical center. It was a passion, and I really felt an obligation to do this.

You now lead the regional clinical trials program. How has the program grown and changed since you first became involved?

We’ve introduced significantly greater infrastructure into the program. Our goal has always been to support investigators from the start to the finish of any study. As a result of this expanded support, our program has seen significant growth in the number of investigators and therapeutic areas.

How did the clinical trials program at KPSC adapt to meet the needs of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what were some of the challenges you had to overcome?

I think that nothing demonstrates the value of clinical research more than a pandemic. When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, we mobilized our investigators and staff, adapted new and more remote workflows, and enabled over 580 KPSC patients to have access to remdesivir, which subsequently became the first effective agent against SARS CoV-2. The challenges in doing so were numerous: opening a study in 15 different hospitals, onboarding every inpatient pharmacy, training more than 40 infectious disease physicians in the study, adapting completely remote staffing workflows including electronic informed consents, all electronic data capture, and so on.

What would you say to a physician who’s interested in becoming involved in clinical trials?

Do it! Being a part of clinical research puts you at the table for scientific discovery and can often bring new and exciting treatments to your patients. At least for myself, this is an important part of my professional “wellness.”

When you’re not at work, how do you enjoy spending your time?

I love the outdoors and being outside — hiking, visiting farmers markets, just walking around the neighborhood, and definitely trying new restaurants and cuisines!

Bonus question: What do you consider the highlight of your career so far?

The highlight is definitely being an investigator in the pivotal Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trial. A recently published article noted that in California alone, COVID-19 vaccines are estimated to have prevented 1.5 million infections, nearly 73,000 hospitalizations, and almost 20,000 deaths. I am so honored to have been a small part of this breakthrough scientific discovery that changed the course of the worst pandemic in modern times. And I am so proud that Kaiser Permanente could play a role in this!