Driving collaboration in radiotherapy research through the STFC Global Challenge Network+

Date published: Jun 06 2019

In this blog post, Karen Kirkby, Professor of Proton Therapy Physics at the University of Manchester and The Christie NHS Foundation Trust and co-chair of NCRI’s CTRad’s Workstream 4, tells us why bringing together experts of different backgrounds to work together is important for the advancement of radiotherapy research.

Clinicians rarely have the opportunity to liaise with experts from the astronomy and particle physics field, and it is a community with a lot of expertise and knowledge that can be translated and used in the cancer research sphere. Throughout the years, NCRI’s CTRad has established a successful network between clinicians and researchers, bridging the gap between the clinical and academic sides of radiotherapy research. It is so important to have clinicians in the room as they will always make a point of asking: ultimately, how is what we are doing helping patients?

Facilitating and developing collaboration through a new network

In order to seamlessly bring together experts from diverse fields, collaboration is central. The partnership between my team at the clinical proton beam treatment and research facility at The Christie, University of Manchester, and NCRI’s CTRad was pivotal in us winning a Global Challenge Network+ in Advanced Radiotherapy grant from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) for over £1m. Engagement between members of the STFC community – such as particle physicists, astrophysicists, nuclear scientists, and computational scientists with clinicians via NCRI’s CTRad was a big factor in us being awarded the grant.

With this STFC grant we organised three ‘sandpit’ workshops, bringing together this diverse community to promote new synergies and collaborations, and to tackle key research challenges. Our three workshops, covering topics in Monte Carlo Radiotherapy Modelling, Imaging and Technology and Radiotherapy and Big Data, led to 21 of the best projects selected by participants being pump-primed with the grant funding. Involvement of the CTRad community made sure that the projects were clinically relevant and as a testament to the difference this made –  all 21 projects selected for funding had had engaged with CTRad.

Advancing radiotherapy research

One of the projects that received funding, in collaboration with the Radiotherapy Trials Quality Assurance (RTTQA) group and the Cancer Research UK Advanced Radiotherapy Technologies Network (ART-NET), was led by Dr Jamie McClelland of the Centre for Medical Image Computing, University College London and Dr Marc Modat of Kings College London. It was about developing a user-friendly data sharing platform to provide secure data transfer from different hospital sites to a central repository, which will eventually be used in large-scale clinical trials.

Another of the research projects was developed and embedded in USA NIH funded TOPAS-nbio, an open access piece of software which is now used across the radiotherapy community to aid understanding of the biological response to radiation.

The importance of involving patients

Patient benefit ultimately remains the objective of our collaborative sandpits and we ensured that their voice was present during the meetings.

We had one or two of NCRI’s Consumer Forum members attending each of the sandpits, circulating around the tables and giving their input to the ideas in discussion. The consumers are already part of CTRad’s network, so already knowledgeable about the radiotherapy research landscape and their role as patient advocates. Some patient representatives remain involved in the projects as they continue to progress.

More to come

We recently received an additional £360k funding through the STFC Global Challenge Network+ and are looking forward to pump-priming more collaborative projects and developing more industry and international links (through working with the International Atomic Energy Agency) to see how the UK research community can contribute in the global dimension.