With over 8 million people dying worldwide from cancer every year, the field of cancer, or oncology, research is one of the most important fields of medicine across the globe, impacting as it does the health and economy of every country in the world. With over 200 different types of cancer, oncology research and resource is spread across a wide variety of specialisations and there are over 600,000 research organisations worldwide.
Oncology researchers are truly passionate and committed to their work. Brent O’Carrigan is one such researcher, an Australian medical oncologist who has worked at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Concord Hospital, the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.
Brent’s field of expertise was predominantly as lead clinical fellow for a range of phase 1 trials at the Royal Marsden.
“Phase 1 trials are the ‘first in human’ safety trials primarily designed to test the safety of new drugs and if tolerable, establish a dose and schedule,” explains Brent.
“The main difficulty with this type of research is ethically, patients must have exhausted all conventional treatments before commencing experimental treatment; which means our study population is patients with advanced cancer, often with failing health which can deteriorate quickly.”
“Research can be laborious, expensive and for some clinicians, frustrating because the benefits to patients take time. However, some of the new drugs provide significant, meaningful and durable clinical benefit and for a minority of patients, they’ll proceed to later phase trials and from then, receive approval for use in the general population.”
A particular area of interest for Brent is that of immunotherapy as it seems to be a paradigm shift in cancer treatment, “unlocking the patient’s own immune system to mount a response against the cancer cells,” as Brent says. It’s safe, effective and provide durable benefit across a wide variety of cancers.
Brent sees a key area for improvement in clinical research as the integration and care co-ordination between academic research centres, clinicians and their patients, an area in which the CancerAid app will prove, as Brent says, “a fantastic opportunity, informing patients about the types of clinical research and personalised information on which trials are active and suitable for them.”
One of the key pieces of advice he has for any researchers entering the field is to “read as many papers you can in a wide array of fields”. As Brent himself recently presented two papers at the world’s largest and most influential cancer meeting, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago, he knows the very real value of this. “Reading papers is both great for inspiration and also an important tool for learning how to write scientifically too.”
Brent’s also an advocate for finding an enthusiastic mentor as well as actively working on improving personal and professionals skills such as in research design, statistics and topics of your own interest, all of which lead to improved overall knowledge.
As a researcher, Brent sees the potential for the CancerAid app for clinical research assisting with real time information on active trials and as an invaluable resource for researchers to communicate directly with patients participating in research.
But as a doctor first and foremost Brent also sees the intrinsic value of the app in its social capacity. “The app will be a critical peer-to-peer support group for patients seeking and participating in clinical trials and for patients to navigate their cancer journey.”
Whilst there many people coping with cancer globally, there are thousands of dedicated researchers such as Brent, working to find ways to both alleviate and cure this disease.
“Seeing an effective new drug licensed and available is a wonderful experience. The collaborative aspect of research can be exceptional with many bright minds applying themselves to a common goal. I’m constantly inspired by the rigour of academic research, carefully designing and conducting a trial so that it answers a key clinical question with robust data in a safe and ethical fashion is immensely gratifying.”