A cancer survivor who took part in a clinical trial in Southampton says she hopes being part of research will mean more people can be cured of the disease in the future.
Ali Richards, 60, from Poole in Dorset, was recently given the all-clear after first being diagnosed with throat cancer over six years ago.
On International Clinical Trials Day (20th May) Ali is joining forces with University Hospital Southampton, the Southampton Clinical Trials Unit and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) as part of the national #TrialBlazers campaign, to encourage more people to ask their doctor or healthcare professional about taking part in research.
Ali said: “I'm really proud to have been involved in a trial of a new treatment and hope my participation will help to make a difference. My sincere hope is that through research we can help stop this horrible disease for most, if not all people with cancer.”
Treatment and trial
Ali was first diagnosed in February 2016 after a lump in her neck which she had thought was a cyst, turned out to be cancerous tumour. She underwent radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment which left her struggling to swallow and needing to be fed through a tube in her stomach.
“The treatment was really brutal,” recalls Ali. “It leaves you in pain and feeling very weak, tired and ill. Unfortunately, it was not completely successful and in 2017 I had surgery to remove some lymph nodes in my neck which set my recovery back again.”
Ali was treated at Poole Hospital, and it was there that her consultant, Dr Emma King, asked her if she would be interested in taking part in the HARE-40 trial.
Dr King said: “Head and neck cancers, such as throat cancer, are one of several cancers that are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is extremely common, and in many cases the body will deal with the infection with no lasting effects. But some strains of HPV can lead to cancer. With the HARE-40 trial we are testing a new vaccine which is designed to help the immune system recognise and destroy these strains of the virus to help fight the cancer.”
Dr King is one of the co-investigators for the HARE-40 trial, which is being run by the Southampton Clinical Trials Unit, the expert team at the NIHR Clinical Research Facility (CRF) at University Hospital Southampton, and the Cancer Research UK research nursing team who administer the first-in-human vaccine to participants. The trial is funded by BioNTech SE, who produce the mRNA vaccine, with additional support from Cancer Research UK.
Ali said: “My experience of being part of the trial was great. Everything was clearly explained to me, and I was really cared for throughout by the excellent nursing team at the CRF. Yes, I did feel a bit rough after the first treatment, but it gets easier and easier as the time goes on.”
Boosting the immune system
Ali was involved in the first stage of the trial which tested the safety and optimum dose of the new vaccine. The trial has now moved into its next phase where the research teams are testing whether the vaccine leads to an increase in immune cells and any change in the participants’ cancer.
Andrea Corkhill, Head of Trial Management at the Southampton Clinical Trials Unit, said:
“Evidence of the benefits of HPV vaccines are already coming through in reduced cervical cancer rates since the introduction of the preventative vaccine for teenage girls, and now boys as well. But some cancer patients do still present with HPV related cancers, such as head and neck, cervical and penile cancers.
“We hope that the HARE-40 trial will lead to a therapeutic vaccine that has the potential to be used instead of conventional cancer treatment to help boost the immune system and fight the cancer with fewer side-effects.”
Professor Saul Faust, Director of the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility, said:
“Clinical trials are a vital step in improving how we treat cancers like Ali’s, as well as many other diseases. International Clinical Trials Day is a chance to showcase the incredible work that is being done by our research teams across the region and celebrate the involvement of all our trial participants who make trials possible, and it is wonderful to see previous participants like Ali doing so well.”
‘Research is the answer’
Ali told how her motivation for taking part in a clinical trial was to help stop people having to go through the treatment that she did in the future.
She said: “I know I had the very best care available, and I have had the best result in that I am alive. But the treatment for this cancer is quite gruelling and has inevitably had a long-term impact on my health.
“I believe that there has to be a better way, and that research is the answer. I would be so happy to know that I have played a small role in developing this vaccine to help fight HPV-triggered cancers.”
To find out more about being part of research in Southampton, visit our Take part section.