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Behind the scenes with the unsung heroes of cancer clinical trials – Part 4

by Aine McCarthy | Analysis

23 May 2017

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To celebrate International Clinical Trials Day 2017 we’re speaking to the ‘unsung heroes’ of clinical trials who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make them happen.

In this post, Jane Hair, a biobanker who works at the biorepository unit in Glasgow, and is involved in the National Lung Matrix Trial, shares what her job involves.

 More than just a banker

The bread and butter of what our unit does is to collect, process, store and coordinate access to patient samples for research. The main types of samples we help collect are tissue samples during clinical trials, surplus tissue removed during surgery and tissue samples from our stored diagnostic samples in our NHS Pathology Departments. All of this work relies on the support we receive from our NHS Pathologists as well as the wider NHS departments and staff. The samples are then studied as part of research to improve how we diagnose and treat cancer.

I trained as a biomedical scientist in an NHS Diagnostic Pathology Laboratory, which I really enjoyed. But after working in the field for a while, I decided it was time for a new challenge so I went back to study for a Masters in Business Administration.

Jane Hair, a biobanker involved in the National Lung Matrix Trial

‘It was a bit of a change, but it created new opportunities for me. After I graduated, I was still looking to be challenged and was now at a crossroads – do I go into the business world or do I continue to work in the NHS?

That’s when an opportunity came up to create an NHS biobank in Glasgow.

I jumped at the chance because it was a great opportunity for me to combine my biomedical skills with my newly acquired knowledge in creating and developing a service from scratch.

Fifteen years later, I’m still here and still loving it!

Over the years, my role as a biobanker has had to adapt to the changes in how medical and cancer research are carried out. But at the same time, the core principles of what I do have stayed the same.

Depending on the clinical trial or the operation, we collect samples in different ways. But every collection method has one thing in common – we always have to make sure samples are collected in an ethical way, in accordance with the Human Tissue Act and that they are of very high quality.

Among other things, this means we have to get the patient’s consent before taking the sample and make sure any personal information of theirs which may accompany the sample is anonymised and kept confidential.

How do you collect yours?

For the Matrix Trial, my team have a few different roles.

The first stage we’re involved in is the pre-screening. Before patients can join the Matrix Trial a sample of their tumour  is studied – or screened – to identify the genetic mistakes in it. That way doctors can figure out which part of the trial they should go on.

My team work with NHS pathologists to identify which part of the sample should be taken for screening and which part should be stored for future use.

I really believe that if we weren’t involved in this part of the trial it would be more difficult for the pathology services to meet the demands of the trial.

The samples we collect as part of the Matrix Trial are small pieces of a larger bit of tissue that’s taken from patients and sent to the NHS Pathology Department to diagnosis what disease they may have. After the most appropriate piece(s) has been selected, DNA is extracted from the sample and sent for analysis.

It’s incredibly rewarding to know that I could play a small part in helping more people survive cancer.

 – Jane Hair

Once we’ve collected a sample we anonymise it by giving it a unique code. The sample will then always been known by that code, meaning the patient’s identity is kept confidential.

We also add other clinical information to the records such as when the patient was diagnosed, what treatment they had etc. The more information we have about a patient sample the better.

Taking pride in what you do

It’s a tough job, especially because of the funding cuts we’ve encountered as a service in recent years. People aren’t always aware that there’s less money so there’s still a high demand for services, which are getting harder and harder to meet.

There are other challenges too, like developing new ways to handle, store and analyse samples as healthcare continues to evolve. But these are challenges I enjoy and I love it when we find a new, better way of doing things.

Despite these challenges, I feel very lucky to be doing this job.

For me and my team, there’s a real sense of pride in being part of something that could benefit patients now and in years to come.

It’s incredibly rewarding to know that I could play a small part in helping more people survive cancer.

Interview conducted by Áine McCarthy