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Case study: Eastern team EMBEDs collaborative approach to get breast cancer research restarted with European 1st

Eastern team EMBEDs collaborative approach to get breast cancer research restarted with European 1st

While maintaining a firm grip on the task of trying to find ways to beat COVID-19, one District General Hospital in Norfolk has also become the first in Europe to enrol volunteers to a vital breast cancer research trial.

When the pandemic hit, Hayley Webb, Research Nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn, NHS Trust (QEHKL) – like many other staff working in research across the country – refocused on the international priority of finding ways to treat patients with the coronavirus. When their own services were shut down during the ‘lockdown’, staff from other departments were also redeployed to help the research team with this mission.

The impact of COVID-19 meant many new and established studies in other conditions had to pause. However, in time, the Restart process launched and the team spotted an opportunity to get the vital EMBED (Early Markers in Breast Cancer Detection) breast cancer study started. The EMBED study is funded by Cancer Research UK and supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

The study investigates if breast cancer can be detected earlier if markers in the blood can be identified in women at a high risk of developing the condition. People at high risk of developing breast cancer often undergo a double mastectomy, so detecting the disease at an earlier stage could be a major step forward to eliminate the need to have surgery.

Some colleagues who had been redeployed to research from the breast imaging department alerted Hayley’s team to the fact that annual mammogram check-ups were in the process of being booked. Having made sure everything was in line with the Trust’s Restart assessment process, Hayley’s team worked closely with the Hospital’s breast screening department to invite every woman who was eligible to join the trial when attending their check-up.

The team were quickly contacted by the first volunteer and have successfully recruited 12 volunteers to date. By aligning research appointments with mammogram appointments, the team have also managed to minimise any inconvenience and risk to the participants.

Hayley, who is leading the study as Principal Investigator at the Trust, said, “At the beginning, COVID overruled a lot of our lives and we had to adapt to what was the most important thing at the time, but by working as a team, we’ve managed really well.”

Acknowledging the benefit of working in collaboration with other colleagues, she said, “We’re really supportive of one another, and if there is one positive outcome from COVID, it’s that it has brought us all together.”

Antonia Hardcastle, Research Manager at QEHKL, said, “The team are brilliant, they’ve coped really well. We’ve really enjoyed the spirit of working together during COVID, so we’re now looking for new studies where everyone can continue this.”

Helen Macdonald, Chief Operating Officer for the NIHR’s Clinical Research Network Eastern said, “It is excellent to see that, despite the challenging odds, Hayley and the team have ensured that essential research can continue and patients are given the opportunity to take part in it.

“Through the years, and recent months in particular, the strengthening of our unique NIHR research community at trust, regional and national level continues to gain momentum, putting us in the best shape possible to find new treatments to benefit as many people as we can.”

The EMBED: Early Markers for BrEast cancer Detection study is led nationally by Prof. Douglas Easton at the University of Cambridge and co-ordinated by Joanna Proctor, and is due to be open until September 2023.