How can we make the vital journey from research to clinical impact more efficient? It all comes down to empowering researchers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset – here we catch up with the participants of our latest programme helping to do exactly that…

To be successful, translational medicine (TM) needs to bring together multiple disciplines – molecular medicine, intellectual property, financing, regulation, preclinical and clinical trial studies are all essential to these complex projects.

Crucial to this success, is to train people and empower those who are best placed to navigate the many challenges of TM. Cancer Research UK (CRUK)’s entrepreneurship programmes were designed to address the gap between discoveries and clinical impact by nurturing an entrepreneurial mindset in our research community. An important part of this has been our recent partnership with the Eureka Institute for Translational Medicine (Eureka).

The first Eureka oncology focused training – delivered in partnership with CRUK earlier this year – was open to early career researchers working in cancer research regardless of their source of funding. 36 participants from across the UK went through a three-day agenda covering topics key to a good translational approach.

So, what was it like to participate? We spoke with some of the attendees, speakers, panellists and organisers to find out…

Laura is an early-stage postdoctoral researcher at Barts Cancer Institute/Queen Mary University London.

Dr Laura Wisniewski: “It was the most useful training I have ever been to – I think it will change more than just my career path.”

Like most people, my family has been affected by cancer. As a wide-eyed teenager, pursuing a research career in cancer felt like the best way to put my drive and curiosity to a useful purpose.

Ten years later, I have finally completed my undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate training, and while my research has a strong translational aim, I feel I am far removed from producing a drug treatment which will help cancer patients. Even if I was developing a drug, I certainly wouldn’t know what to do with it.

When the Eureka Virtual School was advertised, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about what being a translational scientist means exactly and how you go about that journey of translating a “eureka” moment at the bench into a treatment.

Attending the school was so different from other conferences or training. To my delight, there were no endless slides of things that I already knew or would forget the moment the next slide appeared. It was about having a conversation with experts from very different fields, ranging from patent law to communication. I learned so much during those 3 days, chief of which was that I didn’t know very much about the reality of taking a discovery through to patients. But now I understand the overall framework and, most importantly, who to ask for help.

It was incredibly useful to be able to speak to people from all the different areas of translational medicine, be it from a patient advocacy position, a research group leader position, or a clinical trials management position.

It was the most useful training I have ever been to – I think it will change more than just my career path. The virtual school reignited my passion to do translational research.

Richard is in his third decade as a patient advocate. He was a carer for both his parents during terminal cancers and has survived two cancers himself. He has worked with CRUK since the charity was founded and is patient advocate on the Cancer Grand Challenges STORMing Cancer team.

Richard Stephens: “There aren’t many training courses or events who put the patient perspective into practice like Eureka did.”

As a patient involvement advocate it’s important to me that the patient perspective is considered.

I often hear “everything is about the patient,” but there aren’t many training courses or events that put it into practice like the Eureka Virtual School – they even asked me to launch the event with the patient perspective.

During the virtual school, I was encouraged by how many faces were smiling and nodding back at me, with questions immediately popping up in the chat.
I explained that involving patients or the public in basic cancer research is still fairly new, but nevertheless it’s very useful. It’s important to remember that from a patient perspective, the quality of our lives may be just as important to us as the length of it, so coping with treatments is often as important as curing the disease.

Time flew, but some of us continued chatting offline and on LinkedIn. Now all these brilliant minds are ready, willing and able to involve some patients in their projects.

Simon Castillo is a postdoctoral researcher at The Institute of Cancer Research, where he uses an eco-evolutionary approach to study brain tumour biology. He has a PhD in Ecology.

Dr Simon Castillo: “The Eureka School was a real surprise that introduced the complexities of working under a translational paradigm brilliantly.”

When I received an email with information the Eureka Virtual School on a translational approach to oncology research, I said to myself “well, why not give it a try?”.

Learning about translational medicine, a new topic that I could add to my toolkit, was an appealing challenge. And I am very glad I did – after just a few hours of this virtual school, my expectations had already been fulfilled.

The first day kicked off with a lecture about patient advocacy taught by a patient and it was incredibly inspiring. Later, we had sessions on things as essential and diverse as leadership, conflict resolution, mentoring, and intellectual property. More inspiring moments came from the experience in translational approaches of experts such as Dr Sergio Quezada.

In only three days, in small groups, we had to leverage our skills to identify unmet clinical needs, research questions, potential inventions and the corresponding IP strategies, and the funding strategy to attract investors.

Overall, the Eureka School was a real surprise that introduced the complexities of working translationally brilliantly. After three days, I learned that the challenges in oncology come in the form of unmet clinical needs, and importantly that our efforts must orbit around these needs. The school taught me that as complex as cancer is, diversity is the key.

Elisa is a final year PhD researcher at Barts Cancer Institute, part of Queen Mary University of London. She is developing an Oncolytic Virotherapy for treating immunotherapy resistant cancer.

Elisa Heyrman: “I feel more confident that my future research will be translated into the clinic.”

I could not let the opportunity to participate in the Eureka Virtual School for translational medicine pass by. I wanted practical advice on how to bring an invention to the clinic. I previously followed a course on intellectual property (IP), but this was only one aspect of translational research. The Eureka Virtual School not only covered IP, but also patient involvement, team development and communication, all in a platform that allowed me to expand my network.

Even though it was virtual, the event really helped me to build a network and meet new people to learn from. There was a broad panel of speakers and participants in my network, I now feel more confident that my future research will be translated into the clinic.

Another topic emphasised was patient involvement. Before the course, I thought patient involvement should be done at the stage of clinical trials, but it was great to hear how patient involvement can be done early in research. As a PhD researcher working on oncolytic viruses, there are many things I’d like to find out from patients – would they take a virus injection for cancer treatment? How would it make them feel and can we make it more acceptable for them?

The course was a real kickstart my journey to learning more about translation.

Alison Howe’s career has spanned roles in drug development, team leadership and senior management. Since 2013 Alison has been involved as a volunteer in several of CRUK’s activities.

Alison Howe: “The Eureka Virtual School empowered the participating cancer researchers and provided them with invaluable insights.”

I very much enjoyed contributing as a panellist for Eureka. I was asked to take on the role of a patient representative, posing questions to the groups of participants presenting their plans on how to optimise the way to translate a new therapeutic target.

All the groups received the same baseline briefing information. However, the diversity of entrepreneurial strategies presented regarding the best way to translate the research to maximise the clinical and commercial impact clearly illustrated how much insight the participants had acquired during the virtual school.

I was impressed by their understanding of the overall translational pathway and associated key milestones such as patent applications, raising funding capital, forming strategic partnerships with industry, forming multidisciplinary collaborations, licensing and initiating spin-off companies.

Overall, I felt that the Eureka Virtual School empowered the participating cancer researchers and provided them with invaluable insights on how to optimise the impact of their own research innovations.

Richard is the Eureka Virtual School Course Director, an Assistant Professor in the department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, and a course director in the Translational Research Program in Health Science, at the University of Toronto.

Richard Foty: “Participants come together to embrace new perspectives, challenge assumptions, and learn a different approach to research.”

Training cancer researchers in translational medicine early in their careers helps establish a solid foundation in the skills and knowledge necessary in conducting effective research.

Translation is a complex process that requires knowledge in areas that are not traditionally part of medical education. We need teams of dedicated patients, clinicians, scientists, lawyers, industry, and government working as partners towards a common goal. To assemble and coordinate such large and diverse teams, a translational scientist must also have a host of specialised skills, including leadership, communication, critical thinking, creativity, and empathy.

During the programme, participants come together to embrace new perspectives, challenge assumptions, and learn a different approach to research that puts the patient at its heart. Having gone through the program myself in 2014, I can honestly say the experience was life-changing.

I’ve learned so much from the Eureka family. It is my great joy and privilege to continue contributing to these certificate programs, inspiring others in the same way Eureka has inspired me.

Marjolein is a Research Programme Manager in the CRUK Careers and Discovery Research team.

Marjolein Schaap: “The unique approach to educating early career researchers about the importance of translational medicine is very inspiring.”

Translating the research that we fund to benefit patients is of huge importance to us and we want our future cancer research leaders to have an opportunity to gain the relevant skills and knowledge to be able to do this.

Working with the Eureka Institute was an amazing experience; their unique approach to educating early career researchers about the importance of translational medicine is very inspiring, putting the patient at the heart of everything.

I have experienced first-hand how this approach has completely changed some of the participants’ way of thinking about their research, which was incredibly powerful to see.

The Eureka Institute for Translational Medicine focus on delivering training with the aim of building interdisciplinary networks which can inspire, catalyse and sustain translational medicine.

An evaluation of the first decade of Eureka’s programmes was published in 2018.

Participants reported a “paradigm shift” in their scientific knowledge and beliefs. The learning outcomes from the courses, in combination with supportive professional partners and opportunities to network or collaborate, have contributed to the large number of alumni engaging in translational activities.

 

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Author:

Alessia Errico is Regional Translation Lead for CRUKs Opportunity Sourcing and Translation team.