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Footsteps Fund support for Brain Cancer Research

 August 9, 2018 | Simon Jenkins

In 2016 a Direct Mail appeal asked our Footsteps Fund donors to support the work of Professor Susan Short and her team at St James’s Hospital in Leeds.

Supported by alumni and friends of the University, the Footsteps Fund supports initiatives which enhance the student experience and provides scholarships to hundreds of students annually to enable them to take up their hard earned place at Leeds. The fund also helps our world-class researchers take the next vital steps towards extraordinary discoveries.

Donors responded generously to the appeal, contributing almost £190,000, which enabled the team to appoint Neuro-Oncology Research Radiographer Sharon Fernandez. Her role is crucial both to recruiting new patients onto trials of new therapies and giving them the best possible experience during their treatment.

Sharon studied radiotherapy and oncology at the University of Liverpool, completing her final year dissertation on neuro-oncology before working as a therapy radiographer at Leeds Cancer Centre. She previously trained for three years at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, but wished to further develop herself in a new department: “I wanted to expand my horizons and see how patients are treated elsewhere,” she says.

Professor Short admits that there is sometimes a disconnect between the work of the cancer clinics and radiotherapy: “We have a group of nurses who look after the patients but they are not so familiar with radiotherapy and its side-effects. To make our studies as good as possible, we need to improve the relationship between the research clinic and radiotherapy – and Sharon fills that gap in a really effective way.”

Brain cancer patients, typically facing a poor prognosis, are given an intensive five-day a week, six-week programme of treatment at St James’s Hospital in Leeds. For patients on this pathway, already vulnerable because of their diagnosis, the treatment can be physically and mentally exhausting. Having an expert research radiographer dedicated to their care, gives them a single point of contact who will be with them through every stage of the process.

“Five to ten patients are actively having treatment at any one time,” says Sharon. “I see them in clinic, make observations and get to know them. It’s quite a small group so I can afford to dedicate plenty of time with each patient.”

On a practical level, Sharon also ensures that their daily appointments for chemotherapy and radiotherapy dovetail with their participation in the research and their infusions of the trial drugs.

She is also helping to recruit patients onto the trials and has been instrumental in setting up an imaging study where patients are given extra scans in addition to their radiotherapy to explore how quickly their tumour is responding to treatment. “We’ve now completed the first stage of this study and results are promising,” says Sharon. “More patients need to be included, but the scans could provide a much better indication of whether the glioma is responding, compared to conventional MRI.”

As well as Sharon’s appointment, gifts to the Footsteps Fund also enabled us to appoint a research technician who will use mouse models to replicate drug and imaging trials – and test out new ideas in the lab.

This funding was absolutely critical to creating Sharon’s role, believed to be the only one of its kind in the country. “This post would very difficult to fund otherwise,” says Susan. “This kind of role doesn’t exist anywhere else, but Sharon is absolutely proving its value.

“This focussed post is making such a difference to the number of patients we have in our trials – and is giving them a better experience while they are here. It will help us to explore new ways of testing whether the patient is responding to treatment.

“It’s great for our patients to have someone to follow them through their pathway; they feel they are getting a higher standard of care when they have this known point of contact. We’re so grateful to the Footsteps Fund donors whose generosity has made all of this possible.”

Sharon is also acting as an ambassador for the Leeds work: “I will soon have the opportunity to share the impact and progress my role has had at the British Neuro-Oncology Society,” she says. “Demonstrating the success of my role and the team with fellow professionals on a national scale.” She also presented a poster about her role at The College of Radiographers Annual Radiotherapy Conference.

And she is keen to extend the impact of the role still further: “We are trying to give patients a better quality of life and we want to take this as far as we can to develop the patient-centred care pathway.

“I’ve always enjoyed coming to work but this job has taken that to another level. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Footsteps Fund appeals have also made major contributions to our work in Microbubbles and Stroke Rehabilitation Robotics. Learn more about the Footsteps Fund.

Footsteps Fund support for Brain Cancer Research