Early Detection Researchers in COVID-19 response

It has been truly impressive to read how many Cambridge researchers are stepping up to contribute to the national response to COVID-19 and the Early Detection Programme is no different.

Harveer Dev, Honorary Speciality Registrar in Urology, was due to start his Clinical Lectureship in Early Detection post in April but due to the COVID-19 outbreak his plans had to change slightly. "The start of my clinical lectureship post with the Early Detection Programme has come at an extraordinary time. Because of COVID-19, my plans to establish early stage patient-derived model systems for prostate cancer have been postponed, and I am currently providing acute care for hospital patients with urological emergencies. This is alongside delivering a scaled-back service for cancer care, that we are all very eager to see returning to normal. My junior colleagues have been repatriated to different specialities, allowing me to remind myself what a challenging (and fabulous) job they do in looking after our patients on the wards. The doctors' accommodation has also increased my appreciation for a soft mattress after a 48-hour on-call!"

Sabrina H. Rossi, Urological registrar undertaking a CRUK Clinical Researcher Fellowship, is in the second year of her PhD. Supervised by Dr Charlie Massie and Prof Grant Stewart, she is investigating early detection in kidney cancer. In March, she volunteered to pause her PhD and return to clinical practice to help with the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Sabrina was involved with recruiting patients with COVID-19 into the RECOVERY trial, a national randomised control trial of different management strategies for coronavirus patients. Sabrina has also been working full time at Addenbrooke’s Hospital on the “covid rota”, working in red, amber and green areas, covering both A+E and the general medical wards.

Sabrina notes, "It has been great to see doctors from so many different specialities coming together and working so closely. Our patients are making a good recovery and the numbers are really decreasing dramatically. I'm feeling optimistic!"

The Programme's Research and Technology Translation Manager, Dr Catherine Fitzpatrick, has been fully occupied in the response as she describes here: "On the day before lockdown, I managed to rescue a 3D printer from the West Site and hoped to help somehow. Since then, with the support of the Early Detection Programme, I have been volunteering on several COVID-19 related projects. First, I worked on making face shields at Makespace, which has now distributed thousands to Addenbrookes and across the local area. Next, I got involved with the national organisation 3DCrowd, where I am coordinating distributed 3D-printed face shield production. Alongside this, I am volunteering as UK Logistics Director for HelpfulEngineering, an international non-profit focused on COVID-19 response. Here, I am working with an amazing team that is liaising between national and international PPE projects, and looking at applying international innovations to meet UK needs and regulatory requirements. Looking ahead, we are connecting with countries that have fewer resources in order to help however we can. While lockdown with a toddler hasn’t been without challenges, it has been genuinely inspiring to (virtually) meet so many talented, caring people and to see communities come together to take care of their frontline heroes."

One further consequence of the pandemic is that many diagnostic tests for suspected cancer have been put on hold. Programme Co-Lead Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald is tackling the impasse for patients awaiting diagnostic tests for symptoms related to the oesophagus by using the Cytosponge. The "pill on a string" device, which has been progressing through national clinical trials to show that it can detect pre-cancerous cells, was administered last week for the first time to patients at Addenbrooke’s to detect cancer as part of a new clinical service in response to COVID-19 restrictions in endoscopy. Rebecca comments, "I realised we could use the Cytosponge – given this is a crisis situation – and provide some diagnostic assessments for those with worrying symptoms when most cancer testing, which relies on endoscopy, is on hold. Compared to an endoscopy, which requires three medical staff, the Cytosponge is less invasive for patients and safer for medical staff because fewer aerosols are released."