The Clinical Trials Scientist

Richard Stephens tests new treatments for lung cancer by running large trials over many years.

I investigate lung cancer treatment. The survival and quality of life of people who develop lung cancer is poor, and so it’s important to explore new treatments or new ways of giving current ones.

My job is to design and run clinical trials in lung cancer. These are called ‘multicentre randomised controlled trials’ because we compare two or more treatments by allocating them to participants randomly. The trials often take between five and ten years.

Usually, in cancer, we want to see if the new treatments improve survival but we are also interested in side effects and cost. We try to run trials that the drug companies don’t do. We may compare two drugs, look at different surgical techniques, or investigate whether chemotherapy and radiotherapy together improve survival. We also look at new drugs which a drug company has previously promoted through its own research. It’s nice to be able to do independent work and show a clear result.
I work in an office, spending most of my time mostly sitting at the computer trying to move projects along: emailing, trying to get funding, encouraging participants, setting up meetings and writing papers about results. I’m always messaging clinicians, nurses and researchers in other trials units.

On a good day, I make progress: someone says yes we’ll do that, fund that, join that or publish that. Conversely a bad day is someone saying ‘no’!  A very good day is getting something accepted for publication or being asked to speak at a conference. It’s brilliant (but scary) when you stand up at a big conference and present the results of a trial.

‘A good piece of reasearch helps fill in the cancer puzzle.’

A good analogy of what we do is a huge jigsaw of lung cancer – a good piece of research fills in a gap, completes a section, or links together other bits of the puzzle. When that happens, even though it may be a tiny bit of the much much bigger picture, it’s very satisfying.
I started with the MRC some 30 years ago, as a computer programmer in a unit that ran trials in tuberculosis. It’s exciting having arrived at this position, having slowly worked my way up the ladder. Sometimes you think: “I only came to do the photocopying and now they’re asking me to be on Radio 4 talking about the treatment of cancer patients – how did that happen?”

Richard Stephens, research scientist, MRC Clinical Trials Unit, London

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