Interview with Sarah Danson, the new Chair of the Adult Network Strategy Group

12 Dec 2019
Congratulations on your recent appointment – can you tell us a little about your background, and why you got into clinical research?

I was a Senior House Officer at the Christie Hospital and within weeks was hooked by Nick Thatcher’s evidence-based approach (much of which came from other areas of science and beyond). I quickly obtained a Specialist Registrar post in Medical Oncology in Manchester and then found my early-phase niche whilst doing a PhD based around a Cancer Research UK phase I trial supervised by Malcolm Ranson and Caroline Dive.

My passion for clinical research comes from the chance to work with these and other inspirational people, and also because I can see first hand how research makes a difference to patients with cancer.

In 2006, I moved to Sheffield to build up the early-phase trial portfolio with Penella Woll. I have been involved in the ECMC Network since its creation, first as deputy clinical lead for Sheffield ECMC and then as Sheffield ECMC Clinical Lead since 2016.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge facing clinical research today?

­­­The biggest gap that I see is that even when we find actionable molecular abnormalities, targeting these does not always result in clinically significant responses for our patients. Basket and platform studies have been a huge leap forward, but how can we improve on things further? This opportunity may involve using in vivo or in silico systems, or something else entirely, but we clearly need to improve our ability to match patients to treatment.

Our biggest challenge though is keeping the UK at the forefront of early phase research by making it more attractive to pharmaceutical companies. This is not just through meeting metrics and targets, but also through publicising our strengths, such as the ECMC Network, and may need incentives such as Government matched funding for early phase research.

Which aspects of your new role are you most excited about?

Firstly, I want to thank Ruth Plummer for doing a wonderful job in this role until now and for supporting me for many years. I am really pleased that my ECMC Lead peers agreed my appointment, and look forward to working in this capacity over the remainder of the quinquennium.

I am excited about attending the ECMC Steering Committee and effectively presenting the vision of the ECMC Leads. I have already chaired my first Strategy Group meeting which was an event full of lively discussion; not least because the people in the room have a wealth of experience, a multitude of ideas on how to move forward, and a willingness for their energy to be harnessed into delivering better cancer care.

What is your vision for the strategy group in 2020?

My vision is that the ECMCs continue to produce oncological research of international excellence, but also work more as a Network going forward. I think there have already been improvements in the way we work, especially since the ECMC Secretariat was reformed into the ECMC Programme Office and took on a more active role in leading and co-ordinating the activities.

I am also NIHR National Speciality Lead for Cancer: Early Phase trials, with a remit to improve equity of access to early-phase trials for all. I am keen to strengthen collaboration between ECMC sites and to bring the ECMC and NIHR together to improve pathways for patients being treated at non-ECMC sites.

If you could be present at one scientific discovery, which would it be?

I feel I have been close to the start of several scientific discoveries. I was working with Malcolm Ranson when he published a phase I study with ZD1839 (gefitinib); this turned out to be the start of the EGFR inhibition practice change for NSCLC. It was very excitingto see the promise of these agents early on, when patients started to have sustained responses.

I enrolled several patients with melanoma onto a phase III study of an agent called MDX-010, and it was wonderful to see how patients responded to this drug. Now named ipilimumab, it has completely altered the way that we treat melanoma patients.

I would like to continue seeing drugs used successfully in this way to improve cancer outcomes for our patients.