World Pancreatic Cancer Day: The role of research nurses in clinical trials

An interview with Joanne Mayhew, oncology research nurse in the Pancreatic Cancer Programme.

Tell us about your current role in cancer research.

I am an oncology research nurse working with patients who have been diagnosed with liver, pancreatic, biliary tract, head and neck cancers. We are a late phase study team which means we are generally testing whether a new treatment is better than existing treatments. This includes patients who are suitable to have surgery for their cancer. We are also involved in observational and translational studies specifically in pancreatic cancers.

What inspired you to become a research nurse?

Research underpins what we do in clinical practice. We are fortunate to have the scientific expertise in the world where we are continually able to improve treatments that are available for a multitude of diseases. I, personally find it hard to accept that for some diseases such as pancreatic cancer that there are still limited or no treatment options. I envisage a world where we do not need to have a conversation with someone telling them there is nothing further that can be done. I wanted to be part of that change.

What is your role in the development of new treatments and therapies for pancreatic cancer?

For pancreatic cancers, I mainly work on treatment trials (for inoperable pancreatic cancer) which, depending on the stage of the cancer, varies from combining a new treatment with Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy to combining experimental drugs with chemotherapy or new combinations of chemotherapy.

I also work on translational trials where patients agree to donate blood samples, tissue from their tumour and healthy tissue from the pancreas after surgery for scientists to study the cells that make up pancreatic tumours and how they communicate with each other to better understand and develop treatments.

My role involves identifying patients through specialist multidisciplinary team meetings, clinics and other hospital referrals. Once patients are identified and agree to participate then we enter a screening process to ensure they meet the trials requirements.

Once the patient is deemed eligible we then coordinate their care, recording data relating to treatment they are having and side effects. We continually monitor patients through regular contact, blood tests and clinic visits. We also collect questionnaires from patients which help determine the quality of life experienced during and after treatment.

Could you share some success stories or examples of how the work of research nurses has made a difference in pancreatic cancer research?

In pancreatic cancer I see the success stories as patients who are continuing with treatment or have completed a course of treatment and lived beyond their predicted life expectancy. Research nurses are advocates for their patients supporting all aspects of their care from symptom management to referrals to relevant health professionals.

We have a close relationship and are able to recognise when and how a patient requires support before, during and after treatment. By supporting patients in this way it enables them to continue on the clinical trial providing vital data that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments and in turn developing new treatments in the future. It can be as simple as changing the time of an appointment or anticipating a patient’s needs which enables them to continue.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face when working in the field of pancreatic cancer research?

Pancreatic cancer as we know is a devastating cancer. The impact this has on patients and families is distressing.

With clinical trials we often have to move quite quickly as we do not want to delay starting treatment for our patients more than is needed. There is always a screening period where multiple tests need to be arranged to confirm whether someone is eligible for a study.

Often patients are attending our clinics and receive confirmation of their diagnosis/prognosis on that visit, we then inform them of the clinical trials we have available. This is a lot of information to take in all at once.  

And as we are a referral centre for clinical trials, we are seeing patients from other areas of our region, patients are often travelling from far away. Clinical trials can be quite intense especially in the screening period and first cycle or two of treatments.

We do have to ask a lot of our patients who are often not feeling well. It is a challenge, but we endeavour to make the process of being on a trial as smooth as we can and the least intrusive to a patient’s life as possible. We like for our patients to try and continue with as normal a life as possible.

What message or advice do you have for individuals considering a career as a research nurse in the field of pancreatic cancer research?

Don’t hesitate, do it today! Our patients are amazing and inspirational. Although we can’t change their diagnosis, we are able to support them in a way that is not possible in everyday nursing, which in turn will be shaping the future of pancreatic cancer treatments.

It is wonderful to be a part of something bigger than you or your team. With the science today it is an exciting time to be working in this field.

How does awareness and recognition of World Pancreatic Cancer Day impact your work and the overall mission of pancreatic cancer research?

The more awareness there is the better, the earlier people can be diagnosed, and the more patients can take part in clinical trials. The aim is to improve the lives of everyone impacted by pancreatic cancer through scientific research, communities, sharing knowledge and advocating for patients. In addition to this raising more money to fund further research.

Can you tell us about any upcoming or ongoing research initiatives or breakthroughs that people should be aware of?

There is a lot of work and funding being put in to finding ways of early detection in those patients more at risk of pancreatic cancer. This would enable diagnosis before symptoms begin. This would mean earlier diagnosis which in turn would give people the chance to have life-saving treatment, saving thousands of lives every year.

In the Precision Panc study 630 patients have so far been registered across the UK. Precision medicine uses genetic screening to identify the genetic changes present in each patient’s cancer. 

Based on these results, patients receive a treatment that is tailored to their specific cancer genetic profile. By giving patients the right treatments, targeted to their cancer, at the right time, we avoid unwanted side-effects and ineffective medication and ensure better survival.

In the longer term, it will also help researchers and doctors to develop therapies that target specific genetic changes and allow them to design better clinical trials for future patients.

16 Nov 2023