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Case study: Your Path to Research: Charlie Piercy discusses his career as a researcher, Covid-19 studies and his new sepsis study

In Your Path to Research – a series that uncovers the research community across the National Institute of Health Research Clinical Research Network Kent, Surrey and Sussex region – we speak with research practitioner Charlie Piercy about his motivations, inspirations, work on COVID-19 studies and his new sepsis study.

Tell us a bit about the research project/s you are working on…

I joined Royal Surrey in December 2020 as a member of the Urgent Public Health team to work on COVID-19 studies. I could spend hours talking about the work we have done at the trust, but, to keep it brief, we have supported the national trials including:

  • Three drug trials (REMAP-CAPRECOVERY and HEAL-COVID), which have dramatically improved treatment for hospitalised COVID-19 patients by identifying Dexamethasone, Tocilizumab and REGN synthetic monoclonal antibodies as standard of care for COVED-19 infection.
  • The genetics of COVID-19 (GenOMICC) which identified five genes that increase severity of the disease.
  • Infection and immunity in frontline staff (SIREN). This identified how long we have antibody protection for and helped create the pathway out of lockdown and vaccine booster strategy.
  • Clinical Characterisation Protocol (CCP) which is a data collection study on all COVID-19 positive patients and has helped characterise COVID-19 and how it has changed with each new variant.
  • Pregnancy and COVID-19 (PAN-COVID) which was a data collection study on the outcome of pregnancies in COVID-19 positive mothers.
  • Consultant-led research (PARIS). Along with the nationwide clinical trials, we have helped consultants with their own pneumonia research.

We have recruited significantly to many of these studies since the pandemic started. While we have a dedicated research team, this would have not been possible without help from non-research colleagues in the trust.

Born off the back of COVID-19 is my new project. I am working with my Royal Surrey colleague Dr Ben Creagh-Brown, ICU consultant, and Dr Paola Campagnolo from the University of Surrey on a project called the J-wire extraction discovery initiative, also known as project JEDI. The main objective is to recover vascular endothelial cells – which are found in the inner cellular lining of arteries, veins and capillaries – from the guidewire of a CVC or arterial line placement in patients with sepsis. If we can recover these cells, we will then characterise the physical properties, or phenotype, of a septic vascular endothelial cell. The reason why I am very excited about this project is because it will help identify some of the molecular mechanisms involved in septic shock, a life-threatening condition that happens as a result of infection. It could also be the first step in adopting a relatively novel sampling technique that could lead to the development of a point-of-care test to rapidly diagnose sepsis, or provide a key piece of information that could lead to an interventional trial. There is a lot of potential good that will come from this study.

What were you doing before you took up research?

I have always worked in research in some shape or form as it is all I have ever wanted to do. During my Master’s year I worked in a molecular biology lab characterising the changes in expression of the protein NKCC1 during hypertrophy of chondrocyte cells, basically how this protein is involved in making your long bones grow. I then started working at Hammersmith Medicines Research (HMR) where I worked on Phase 1 first-time-in-human trials. I worked there for five years on a range of projects including the Ebola vaccine, and Immeglimmin – a first-in-class anti-diabetic medication awaiting approval from the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency and European Medicines Agency. In my last year there I moved into the project management team where I designed clinical trials. In December 2020 I made the best decision regarding my research career and joined Royal Surrey. I have not looked back since.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

My biggest inspiration was my teachers. I could say it is because they encouraged me and put me on the right path (which is true). But the real reason they inspired me is because I would always ask the question “why?” only to be met with the answer “oh we cover that at GCSE, A-Level etc”. This carried on until I got to university where I asked my lecturer why, only to be met with the answer I don’t know, go and look it up. So I did, and 10 years later I’m still finding answers.

What is the best thing about being a researcher?

The best thing about working in research is seeing the work you have done go on to help people. It doesn’t matter what part of the spectrum of research you are on, there is no better feeling than seeing your work make someone else’s life better.

What have you found the biggest challenge?

The challenges in research are constantly evolving. However, there has been one challenge that has been highlighted from the pandemic and that is communication. Research has its own language and way of presenting information, which is great if you work in a research environment. The problem is how do we make this information palatable and accessible for the general public? Part of my mission in research is to make sure that I can thoroughly explain the work I am doing and the results I get to anyone I meet regardless of their background. This way I can do my bit in promoting research.

What advice would you give to others considering a career in research?

Go for it! If you have an idea, doesn’t matter how big or small, talk to someone about it and try to make it a reality. The NHS is built on research and evidence-based practice, so I am sure your ideas would be welcomed. Work with your Research, Development and Innovation team – they are a fantastic support and will help bring your projects to life and make sure they run within the framework of Good Clinical Practice.