Attendees at the celebratory event enjoyed a programme of events (photos: Helen Craig)
The partnership between The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust is at its most concrete and visible in our joint Drug Development Unit (DDU).
It is here that clinicians and scientists work together to run a programme of highly innovative early-phase clinical trials which assess novel and experimental cancer treatments in patients, often for the very first time.
I knew all this when I attended the unit’s open evening on Friday 6 May 2016, so I was expecting to hear about amazing science and cutting-edge clinical care.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer emotional power and sense of purpose that drives the unit, and the incredible connections forged between all the people who are involved in its work.
The DDU, as became clear over the evening, has been there for some of the most important moments in the lives of both patients and staff.
The evening started with an introduction from Dr Shelley Dolan, the Chief Nurse at The Royal Marsden, who praised the way everyone in the unit works as a team. As a practical nurse at heart, she still gets excited to see amazing science translated into therapeutic medicine so quickly.
Professor Johann de Bono, the Director of the DDU, was the next to speak. He shared his gratitude for the “superb team” of people who work in the unit and the organisations and funders who support it, including the ICR and The Royal Marsden, Cancer Research UK, the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre, the Department of Health and the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre Network. But as he made clear, it is the patients who are at the heart of everything.
Professor Johann de Bono addresses the audience at the DDU birthday event
I learned that there have been more than 6,000 patients seen by the DDU since footballer Gary Lineker arrived to open it 10 years ago, and that the treatments pioneered and training offered by the DDU has had a global impact.
Over those years, the unit has started to analyse routinely the genes of the patients who attend, and is working on less invasive ‘liquid biopsies’, better growth of cancer cells in the lab and harnessing the immune response. Professor de Bono explained that we’re living in a very exciting time in cancer research and are now generating a huge volume of information on cancers.
Three patients who had received treatment within the DDU also spoke.
Cristiana Benedetti-Fasil spoke movingly about the life experiences she has been able to have, that she had feared her ovarian cancer diagnosis would keep from her. She attends the DDU every two weeks, travelling from various countries, and thanks to the staff at the unit she has never once missed her flight!
Philip Malling spoke next and showed the audience a photograph of his grandson, Hugo, who is three years old. Philip’s diagnosis four years ago could have meant he wouldn’t have seen him at all without treatment. “The DDU gave me back that time,” he says.
Linda Taylor addresses the audience at the event
Finally, Linda Taylor talked about her experiences with the DDU, and was especially complimentary about the way that every step of the patient experience is clearly explained, and how attendees are encouraged to continue travelling and enjoying life — she had recently started singing in a choir again, despite her lung cancer.
Janet Hanwell, Clinical Nurse Specialist, talked about her time at The Royal Marsden and shared memories of the earliest days of the unit.
‘It felt like a reunion’
After the talks, the event moved out into the atrium and the first floor of the Brookes Lawley Building – the ICR’s signature space for exhibitions and events.
There were some fantastic posters and discussions sharing the work of the DDU, along with some great activities — from allowing visitors to become a human computer to design drugs, to a Lego-based explanation of how biomarkers for monitoring how a drug is working are selected.
Visitors to the DDU birthday event engaged in research-related activities
It was great to see how scientific research is translated into the clinic, and the impact that this work has on the lives of cancer patients.
But the thing that struck me the most was the way that everyone, from patients to the researchers to the clinical staff, was so happy to see each other.
Cristiana Benedetti-Fasil commented that it was great to see people she knew from the unit in a different setting. With the wine and canapes, it felt like a reunion for old friends who had been through a lot together.
As Dr Udai Banerji, Deputy Director of the DDU, said in his closing speech, everyone at the unit goes on a journey together — and although it can be difficult, when he sees a tired patient, tired nurse and tired doctor, everyone is still smiling.
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