Europe's largest drug development centre opens

27 February 2005

When a patient with advanced cancer has exhausted all essential treatments, there is often little a doctor can do. Unless the patient is willing to take part in a drug trial.

At the end of February, the Royal Marsden, Europe's leading cancer centre, opens a new dedicated unit – the Oak Foundation Drug Development Centre – at the hospital's site in Sutton, Surrey. The centre has been built as part of the Royal Marsden's ongoing £30 million Cancer Campaign.

Providing doctors and scientists with a purpose-built facility to research the next generation of drugs for adult and childhood cancers, the Oak Centre will enable over 200 patients a year to take part in pioneering trials. It is the largest such centre in Europe, with around twenty different trials taking place at one time. By more than doubling existing capacity, the Royal Marsden is able to accelerate the essential testing process for novel drug discoveries.

The Oak Centre capitalises on the partnership between The Royal Marsden Hospital and The Institute of Cancer Research to take promising new drugs rapidly from the laboratory to the cancer patient.

"This centre represents a very exciting step forward in our quest for anti-cancer drugs," says Professor Stan Kaye, Head of the Drug Development Centre. "The focus of our work is on discovering drugs that control the disease and help to increase life expectancy, minimise side effects and maximise quality of life.

"Some of the trials involve completely new agents; others involve known cancer drugs being tested in combination with new compounds. We're aiming to go one better!" Professor Kaye continues, "We are doing a lot of work with molecular targeted chemicals that are selected to act on specific cancer cell signals to halt their growth. We are also addressing the issue of drug resistance when a patient no longer responds to treatment."

"The collaboration between the Royal Marsden and The Institute of Cancer Research provides a unique framework for the Drug Development Centre and means patients benefit from seamless ‘bench to bedside' care."

For patients, participation in a drug trial may bring hope and a sense of purpose with benefits, in addition to the treatment itself, deriving from the level of personal care and attention received. For many, their involvement serves as a legacy for the future.

Jackie Sedgwick, 71 from Reigate in Surrey, says, "I take the view that someone has to try these drugs or they'll never know if they work. I had reached the point where who knows what they'd have done – if the new drugs work for me that's all well and good but it's more important to know they might help someone else one day."

Hugh Gray, 58, says, "I know I'm beyond all traditional medicine but I'm happier doing something than sitting around doing nothing. I'm pleased if they can learn something that will benefit somebody else down the line."

Most patients are taking part in first phase trials where the drugs, or particular combination of drugs, have never been given to patients before. They may be one of only 30 to 50 people testing out a new therapy.

The provision of a dedicated space within the hospital means patients receive the required level of close supervision and monitoring either as inpatients or on an out-patient basis. Patients may be referred for trials from other units within the Royal Marsden or from other hospitals.

The patients

Clare, from Manchester

Clare was diagnosed 10 years ago with a very rare form of cancer in her leg called alveolar soft part sarcoma. A couple of operations succeeded in removing the tumour but five years later secondary nodules were discovered on her lungs. A year ago she was told there was little more that could be done.

Despite her illness Clare has managed to enjoy a normal life, travelling extensively in Latin America and Africa with her husband and continuing in her job as a primary school teacher in Manchester. Even now she regularly goes jogging, albeit gently.

Clare is now on her second drug trial at The Royal Marsden Hospital – testing out a completely new compound - and is responding well.
"You go on a trial with your eyes open.

You're told there is nothing more that can be done for you and that the new drugs could make you ill," says Clare. "But it was important for me to try. It's all about giving hope. It gives hope especially to my family and it gives me hope that it might make me well.

"I draw inspiration from simply being in the Oak Centre," she adds. "The nurses give you inspiration, I feel they're here for me personally, not just to study the research results."

Jackie, from Reigate

Jackie was diagnosed in 2000 with cancer of the thymus gland at the back of the breast bone. Following surgery and chemotherapy at her local hospital she was referred to the Royal Marsden two years ago when they found the tumour was growing again. It proved resistant to standard chemotherapy drugs and last year an appropriate trial came up for which Jackie volunteered. She is on her eighth cycle, having remained longer than researchers require for a phase 1 trial, as the drug has succeeded in stabilising the growth.

Life continues much as normal for Jackie who fits her daily hospital appointments around visits to her four-year old grandson, a busy social life and a daily walk.

"I had reached the point where who knows what they'd have done with me but you have to put it to the back of your mind or you can't get on with life," says Jackie. "I take the view that someone has to try these drugs or they'll never know if they work. If the new drugs work for me that's all well and good but it's more important to know they might help someone else one day."

The Drug Development Team

Professor Stanley Kaye is Head of the Oak Foundation Drug Development Centre. He is Professor of Medical Oncology at The Royal Marsden Hospital and Head of the Section of Medicine at The Institute of Cancer Research. Taking up this position in September 2000 after 20 years in Glasgow, the centre marks the realisation of a vision to create a dedicated cancer drug development unit. Prof. Kaye also has major interests in drug resistance and ovarian cancer.

Professor Ian Judson is Head of Clinical Pharmacology and specialises in the development of new anticancer drugs. He has many years of experience in the conduct of phase I clinical trials and has a particular interest in the treatment of sarcomas.

Dr Johann de Bono directs the clinical drug development phase 1 trials programme. He has a particular interest in pharmacogenetics and prostate cancer.

Sarah Stapleton is the Oak Ward Sister. She has spent the last two years planning and setting up the service now in place in the Drug Development Centre, in particular, recruiting and training a team of dedicated nurses. She continues to be involved in assessments, drug administration and patient support.

Sarah Reade is one of the unit's Research Nurses. Her role is to coordinate the trials from recruiting and screening volunteers to setting the protocols for managing a trial. She is responsible for running several trials at one time.

Alex Pritchard is the Clinical Trials Manager making her the first point of contact for pharmaceutical companies wishing to conduct studies. She supervises the regulatory and ethical processes of a trial as well as managing budgets and contracts.

David Eaton is the Senior Clinical Data Manager, ensuring that trial results are captured and collated effectively. His team also communicates results to the trial sponsors and assists in the day to day running of the trials and centre.

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