I am fortunate to have been involved in the coordination of a research project from the time it was designed, all the way up to when the results of the project changed clinical practice, with the approval of a Medicare item number for a new type of radiotherapy for early breast cancer. This process took 14 years, with close to 500 wonderful patients volunteering to help us answer the questions of whether an experimental form of intra-operative radiotherapy (IORT) was not only feasible, but could potentially replace standard radiotherapy delivered daily (Monday to Friday) for up to 6 weeks. An NHMRC Research Project Grant, along with further local Western Australian grants made this research possible, so this is a great example of how investments into research projects can make a real difference for not only patients but also the health care system.
Being able to offer a once-off dose of radiotherapy for selected women instead of 6 weeks of treatment is a dream come true, not just for the clinical investigators who drove this research, but mainly for the patients they were aiming to help: women with early, low risk breast cancer suitable for breast conserving surgery, whose only radiotherapy treatment option at that time was the 6 week course.
The availability of IORT as a standard treatment option adds a significant component to the treatment decision making process for eligible patients, especially for women who would usually have to relocate from rural areas to a metropolitan area for the duration of their radiotherapy.
My personal involvement in this research has been very rewarding, having worked closely with almost each of the 500 volunteer patients over this time. I have seen firsthand, the benefits patients experience in being involved in a trial, not to mention the immense relief that was expressed by those who were randomised to receive the once-off treatment, knowing they wouldn’t have to spend 6 weeks visiting the hospital daily, or worse, leaving behind their friends, family or workplace in order to relocate to a metro area for their treatment. Being involved in a clinical trial gives patients an 'extra set of eyes’ to watch over them during their health care journey, and many have expressed their gratitude for this.
Clinical research is not without its challenges however, particularly in the areas of funding and resourcing, so it is important that we share success stories such as this one to show how beneficial well designed research can be.