Bhavik Patel's lab has been closed since March.
From labs closing to funding cuts, the impact of COVID-19 on research has been severe. But while COVID-19 has slowed us down, we will never stop.
We caught up with Professor David Sebag-Montefiore and Professor Bhavik Patel about how COVID-19 has impacted their work, and what the next few months looks like for them.
Professor Bhavik Patel: “We were so close we could touch it”
Professor Bhavik Patel’s lab has been empty since the end of March. “The lab shut on the 20th March, and we haven’t returned since. It was a real kick in the stomach because we were in a period with our research where it was the most exciting it’s ever been.”
A chemist by training, Patel says he started working on cancer a couple of years ago because it seemed like the technologies his lab were developing could have a role in understanding the disease. And it’s been an explosive start. He’s part of two grants from Cancer Research UK, both of which are generating exciting results.
“The first one is to develop a novel sensing tool that will be used for the early detection of leukaemia in liquid biopsies, although we hope that the platform is more universal and would be useful for many cancers.”
The other project aims to help tailor treatment to an individual’s tumour. It involves growing tumour samples from patients on a platform that can predict the growth of that tumour in the presence of different treatments, with the aim of providing a realistic, accurate readout of which treatment is most likely to work for someone.
Patel says they started looking at breast cancer samples but, like their early detection work, they hope the technology could be used across multiple cancer types.
Both projects were coming towards an end when the labs shut down because of COVID-19. “It was so frustrating, because both projects had a single experiment that we needed to do to tip it over the edge.” Patel says that while there was some data analysis for the team to be getting on with during lockdown, they’re a bit stuck with the lab being shut.
“The really hard part is that we know what needs to be done and we’re so close we could touch it, but we can’t. So we’ve had to furlough post-doctoral staff, because there’s nothing they can do for us now and it would be a waste of funds to have them working.”
As labs start to reopen, Patel is keen to get started again, but there’s a question mark over how many members of the lab will still be working, as there are gaps in their funding due to COVID-19.
“The most important element will be the personnel. It feels like if we can retain everyone, then yes we could get up and running again quite quickly, but if we lose our staff then we’re probably six months to a year behind where we wanted to be.
“It’s painful, because you know you’re doing something that can make an impact. And I’ve met the people that it impacts and the people that support you at events we run and I’ve felt that connectivity to why we’re doing what we’re doing.
“And right now you just feel, we could be doing more for you, and we can’t right now, which is the really hard part.”
Professor David Sebag-Montefiore: “The next few months should be an opportunity for us to focus on recovery of cancer research activity”
Professor David Sebag-Montefiore is a cancer doctor and researcher at the University of Leeds and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.
Sebag-Montefiore’s work and expertise stretches from Clinical Director of the Leeds Cancer Research Centre, directing the Cancer Research UK Leeds Radiotherapy Research Centre of Excellence, part of our radiation research network, RadNet, to working as a clinical director of the Cancer Research UK Leeds Clinical Trial Unit, to name just a few.
For Sebag-Montefiore, the main impact of COVID-19 has been managing the changes to workforce “and reacting to the rapidly changing landscape,” particularly as a lot of the research staff returned to clinical roles to support the NHS during the peak of the outbreak.
“The other angle has been focusing on more COVID-19 related implications,” explains Sebag-Montefiore, who led an urgent piece of work to produce international clinical guidelines for treating bowel cancer during COVID-19.
Sebag-Montefiore is also the chair of CTRad, the national NCRI radiotherapy research group, who are empowering radiotherapy units to collect data on how their work has changed during the pandemic.
“In COVID RT, we’re collecting valuable information that will help us understand the changes that were made for patients who received radiotherapy,” he explains. “It is really important that we understand the outcomes of our patient’s radiotherapy treatment based on the different approaches that were used.”
Sebag-Montefiore is delighted with the support so far, with 52 out of 62 radiotherapy centres in the UK taking part. “This will provide really valuable information – how we coped, how we reacted, how we changed. It will also help us decide how we approach future waves or new pandemics.”
On top of the new projects, some of his regular work with RadNet has been able to continue remotely, and some radiotherapy clinical trial activity has also continued throughout these challenging times. “For example, we were able to continue recruit patients to the PLATO trial, led by Leeds Clinical Trial Unit, that’s personalising radiotherapy dose for anal cancer patients.”
However, it’s by no means business as usual. “There’s no doubt that we’ve had effectively a 90% freeze on our ability to conduct the research we would normally do. So I don’t want to gloss over the fact the impact has been dramatic and very substantial and created major challenges to adapt to new and remote ways of working.
“In lockdown you realise the value of all those informal corridor and café conversation and personal connections that we previously almost take for granted – I have really missed them!”
He goes on to explain how a large part of the reason that trials were paused was because a lot of resources were switched over to COVID-19 trials. “That was due to staff being deployed for COVID-19 trial activity and recruitment. And during the peak, that was a very appropriate approach.”
But while the switch to COVID-19 was necessary during the peak of the pandemic, Sebag-Montefiore stresses the need to support the recovery of cancer clinical trials.
“We know that a next “big wave” is going to be a significant surge in cancer diagnosis. I feel very strongly that we need to fight hard to recover the cancer clinical trial portfolio.
“Clinical trials are at the centre of clinical research and the way we improve patient outcomes and bring new treatments from the lab to the clinic. It is critically important that cancer patients have the opportunity to be part of these trials.”