Thursday, 24 December 2015

Lab work one day, scanning patients the next: the life of a clinician scientist - Dr James O’Connor

Dr James O’Connor - clinician scientist at The Christie and The University of Manchester

Dr James O’Connor
‘So what exactly do you do?’ That’s a question I get asked a lot. Colleagues at work, as well as family and friends, all want to know what a clinician scientist actually is. In short, my job is a mixture of being a researcher and being a medic. And the two parts of the job go hand in hand. 

I spend most of my time in the lab as a researcher, developing new ways of imaging cancer.
But one day a week I work as a consultant radiologist at The Christie. As a doctor, I use my experience and judgement to diagnose cancer, see where it has spread to and decide if tumours are responding to therapy. And keeping an eye on both these areas is really important.

Being a medic helps me to identify limitations in the scans used to diagnose and monitor patients with cancer. Being a scientist lets me take those limitations and develop and test new ideas in my lab that could solve these problems.

And if we find something that could work then, I’m in the perfect position to help make sure these new approaches can be tested in the clinic and potentially benefit patients quickly.
One great thing about being a clinician scientist is variety – no two days are ever the same. Some days are spent in the lab; others in meetings; others writing funding proposals or turning data into papers. 

In some ways it is a bit like being self-employed. 

Although I have several staff funded by my grants, I need to attract more funding to build a research group that’s at the cutting edge of imaging science research. So I am always looking out for new ideas, new studies and new collaborators.

This aspect is really different from clinical work. Thinking outside the box is crucial.

It’s never nine to five, but I like that! Being a clinician scientist lets me organise my day to fit in around home life too. This is busy – we have four young children – but it can work well. I (nearly) never miss school assemblies or plays. I often do the school run. But it does mean that evenings and weekends are often filled with ‘working from home’.  

The scans and technology used to diagnose cancer can seem a bit removed from having contact with patients. And when you’re looking at new versions of this technology in the lab it can seem even more distant. 

But I’ve had some wonderful encounters with patients during my research. They have generously given their time to take part in my studies, which has not only shaped my research, but has also given me a crucial understanding of what it’s like to live with cancer.  

And that’s why we do the work that we do.

The Christie is one of the largest single centre cancer sites in Europe. Every year, around 2,000 of our patients take part in trials of new therapies that may alter how a tumour behaves, but not necessarily shrink it. Sometimes it can be difficult to work out why that’s happening and this is where my research comes in. 

Current scanning methods often can’t match the best treatment for each individual, or detect which patients are responding to a new therapy. My research group is developing new scanning methods that try to address these problems. We use advanced MRI scans to map different biological properties within different regions of tumours. 

And we’re beginning to see some promising results.

We recently developed a new way of measuring oxygen levels inside tumours which is something that has been difficult to do before.

Being able to see areas of low oxygen – called hypoxia – is really important. These regions can suggest whether a tumour might be more aggressive and likely to spread, and spotting them could signal where to target new treatments. 

These encouraging early results have allowed us to move this technique into two trials in patients with lung and rectal cancers.

It’s early days, but this method looks really promising! One day this technique could help doctors select the best therapy for each patient and monitor how tumours respond to new drugs and radiotherapy.

And it’s great to be in a position to see that discovery move from the lab and into the clinic.
Imaging scientists must show that scans are affordable and can improve patient care. There is no shortage of people developing clever ideas but these ideas must produce techniques that directly benefit patients.

It’s critical that our best imaging scientists work together to keep the UK at the forefront of cancer imaging. Cancer Research UK and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have invested a substantial amount of money to help make this happen.  This initiative has helped me build collaborations with colleagues across the country, combining the strengths of all our scientists. 

Research is all about communication and building relationships with other academics. As well as collaborating with UK colleagues, I also work closely with many other scientists in the USA and Europe. This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work.  
Only by sharing ideas and working together will we truly crack the big challenges in research.

My job is challenging, but it’s great fun and is never boring! I love the balance of seeing patients and also having the opportunity to take an idea and hopefully turn it into something that improves people’s lives.  

Friday, 18 December 2015

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases - Jo Taylor

Christie patient Jo Taylor

Jo Taylor - Christie patient

On 1st October this year I was scheduled in for a regular appointment with my GP, while I was there he asked me if I would like my flu jab. Without hesitation I said ‘yes’!

I was 38 and married with two young children when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My daughter was five months old and my son was two and a half. It was a HUGE shock. Before being diagnosed I’d always suffered respiratory problems which have made me susceptible to infections and coughs and colds. I had my tonsils out when I was 21 and since then I’ve not have the defences needed to stop chest infections.

Having my flu jab made total sense.

As a patient, the last thing I want is to be unnecessarily ill and forced to delay my treatment for any reason. This is why it’s so amazing that The Christie tries so hard to make sure as many staff as possible have the flu jab. The nurses I’ve spoken to are determined to keep the patients as well as possible. Last year The Christie vaccinated the second highest number of staff in the country and this year they want to hit the top spot.

Last year, during my chemotherapy treatment, I caught the flu and it was horrendous. I was so ill I couldn’t even leave my bed, I was incredibly lucky not to have been hospitalised. And for some vulnerable people that catch it, the flu can be life threatening. 

It’s so encouraging to know that everyone I come into contact with at The Christie will have been offered the flu vaccination. The Christie is an amazing place for treatment and the staff are well aware of the risks of flu.  They know their patients have a weakened immune system and need all the help they can get to stay well during treatment. I wouldn't want to be treated anywhere else, the clinicians and nursing staff - in fact everyone I have met - are the most welcoming and understanding of cancer.  And to know that they are so willing to go the extra mile to make sure their patients are safe by getting their flu jab is so reassuring. 

Although I wouldn’t have expected anything less…it's The Christie way.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Maggie’s and The Christie are working in partnership to create cancer support of the highest quality - Sinead Collins

Sinead Collins - Centre Head of Maggie’s at The Christie 

Sinead Collins
I’m delighted to introduce myself as Centre Head of the new Maggie’s Centre which will be opening its doors on Kinnaird Road in Spring next year. Readers might recognise me from my previous role at The Christie in surgical oncology. I had 12 wonderful years at The Christie but I am very excited about my new role with Maggie’s.

I’m sure readers will have noticed the rather unique-looking building as it has grown since we broke ground in April this year. I have heard people asking ‘what is Maggie’s?’, ‘what will happen inside this new building?’ and ‘how will this new support help me and my colleagues?’

I’m hoping this blog will give readers a good overview of Maggie’s and the support we’ll be providing, I’ll also be available in person to answer any questions at Grand Round on December 18th and I’ll be hosting an information stand on the glass corridor the week commencing 21st December and again in January. 

So, just to make a start; Maggie’s is a charity that provides completely free practical, emotional and social support for people affected by cancer and their family and friends. Our aim is to support people with all of the issues that cancer brings into their lives. 

Maggie's Centre design
We currently have 18 centres across the UK, online and abroad, each built in the grounds of specialist NHS cancer hospitals. All of our centres are unique, warm and welcoming places. From these centres we offer Maggie’s evidence-based core programme of support which has been developed to complement and add value to the excellent medical treatment and support that  is provided for patients here at The Christie day-in and day-out.

In my new role as Maggie’s Centre Head I will oversee everything that happens in the centre, supporting the needs of anyone who walks through the door, ensuring our programme of support is meeting the needs of the people being treated at The Christie and working with my team to create as warm and welcoming an environment as possible. 

Alongside myself, the new Maggie’s Centre will also be staffed with a team of qualified professionals including a psychologist, cancer support specialists, a benefits advisor, relaxation specialists as well as experts in a particular field who will come into the centre to provide sessions on nutrition, art therapy, tai chi, yoga and creative writing. 

The programme of support we’ll be offering will include psychological support, guidance on nutrition, benefits advice and exercise and has been shown to improve physical and emotional wellbeing.

Support at Maggie's
Any Christie patients and their loved ones will be welcome to access this support at the centre for free and without an appointment as we’ll be offering drop-in cancer support every weekday from 9am-5pm as well as a scheduled daily timetable of courses and workshops. 

As for the centre itself; Maggie’s Centres are intended to feel more like a home than a hospital and are designed to feel non clinical to help make our visitors feel safe, valued and comfortable in an atmosphere that stimulates their imagination and lifts their spirits. 

The new centre at The Christie has been designed by world-renowned architect, Lord Norman Foster, who was born and grew up in Manchester and will be surrounded by a garden designed by landscape designer Dan Pearson. We hope the space will provide patients and their family and friends with a friendly place to meet other people who are in a similar situation as well as offering a calming space where they can simply sit quietly with a cup of tea if that’s what they need.

If any readers have any questions about the new centre and the support we offer or would like to arrange a time for us to meet and to have a look round the centre then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me on or 07584680575. I look forward to catching up with everyone soon.

For further information on Maggie’s programme of support please visit 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Christmas is a special time of the year for the children at Beaver Road and The Christie has a very special place in all our hearts - Holly Myers

Holly Myers - Subject Leader for Music at Beaver Road Primary School

Holly Myres
On Tuesday 8th December, the members of the Beaver Road Primary Choir in Years 3 and 4 will be performing in The Christie Charity Christmas Concert at Manchester Cathedral. 

This will be the third year that our choir has been invited to take part in the Christie Concert. We loved performing at Gorton Monastery the last two years, but we are really excited about singing in the cathedral. It is a very special venue and I am sure that it will be another amazing experience for our pupils. 

We have been enjoying practising the songs for our performances in our choir rehearsals. We will be singing the traditional carol Away in a Manger, and a lively song called Sparkle and Shine from the film Nativity. We are also looking forward to performing alongside the professional performers and other community groups in some other songs.

Christmas is a special time of the year for the children, parents and staff at Beaver Road and The Christie has a very special place in all our hearts. For me, the Christmas season begins with The Christie Concert. We are proud once again to have our school choir invited to join this wonderful celebration.

Beaver Road Choir performing at
Gorton Monastery last year.
Lots of the children here are really excited about performing in the cathedral and are very enthusiastic about supporting The Christie. One of our Year 4 members of the choir Rosie Cooke is delighted to be singing at the cathedral. She did a yard sale recently which raised £24 for the Christie and she loves being part of the choir. She is delighted that our school has been invited to sing for The Christie again this Christmas. 

The school has lots of other exciting events coming up this month. The Year 5 and 6 members of the choir will be singing in care and residential homes in the local area. They will also be entertaining patients in the dining room at The Christie.

We are also extremely excited to be invited to perform on the Blue Peter Christmas Special. The children will be filmed at the BBC studios at Media City on the 10th December and the show will be broadcast on Thursday 17th December. 

The choir and I are really looking forward to all of our performances, and we can’t wait to spread some festive cheer in the local community and beyond!