29.07.2019

Sir Bobby’s legacy - Stephen Searl’s story

Stephen Searl, aged 60 from Whickham, has a unique perspective on the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre. In fact, he knows it inside out.

When the clinical trials unit at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care, Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, was being built, Steve was one of the construction team. At that time, he also knew he would be a patient there when it was completed.

The insulation engineer had been diagnosed with cancer and was receiving treatment and was trialling a new cancer drug under the care of Professor Ruth Plummer, who became director of the Sir Bobby Centre.


Stephen Searl

Stephen says: “All those months helping build the Northern Centre for Cancer Care were very strange for me. I knew which bit would be the trials unit and I knew I’d be a patient there when it was finished.

“Like Sir Bobby, I was already on a clinical trial then and we both received our treatment through Professor Plummer who was then based at the General Hospital. The facilities there weren’t purpose built for drug trials though and were a bit dated.

“Whenever I had my appointments with Professor Plummer, I’d let her know how the build at the Freeman Hospital was going and update her on the new unit. She had all the inside information that way.

“One day she mentioned to me that Sir Bobby was getting involved to help raise the money needed to equip the new unit. What a fantastic thing he did and it’s amazing to see how things have grown. I bet he had no idea how big his charity would get.”

Stephen, who is married with three step-children and four grandchildren, has been on trial cancer drugs for the last 14 years to combat melanoma.

He was first diagnosed 21 years ago after noticing a small lump on the side of his neck. After treatment, he was clear for around six years before noticing a lump on the other side of his neck and was diagnosed once more.

The first trial drug he took for around six months was not successful, however the next drug, Tremelimumab has worked well for Stephen and with no ill-effects to date.

Stephen explains: “I come into the Sir Bobby Centre every six months or so. I have a scan about 10 days before that just to check on things and so far, thankfully, things are going well.

“It’s like a maintenance stop for me. I’m at the unit all day because it takes about five hours to take the drug intravenously. Then my wife picks me up, we go for a meal and I’m back at work the next day.

“I’m hugely grateful to have the chance to go on a clinical trial. Obviously, they don’t work for everyone but I’ve been lucky. It’s given my wife and I the opportunity to live a happy, healthy life and to travel and see amazing places.

“I must have been one of the first patients in the Sir Bobby Centre when Professor Plummer’s trials patients were transferred over from the General. The staff in the unit are fantastic. Always so friendly and easy-going.

“There’s a serious purpose behind every visit but they make you feel relaxed. It’s like catching up with friends.”

In 2008, when Professor Plummer was treating Stephen, she was also treating Sir Bobby as he faced cancer for a fifth time. She was also trying to raise £500,000 to equip the new trials unit and asked him if he knew anyone might like to help. Sir Bobby responded by launching his Foundation.

During one particularly complex meeting discussing charitable law and legal issues, Professor Plummer remembers Sir Bobby fixing her with his steely gaze and asking: “Why did you ask?”

It was a joke he would repeat when he wrote it on a photo of him with the clinical trials team, that he sent to Professor Plummer and which is still displayed in her office in the Sir Bobby Centre.

On International Clinical Trials Day, Professor Plummer said: “The importance of clinical trials is being highlighted all over the world and this feels like a great time to celebrate the benefits of working together as a team to bring forward better and innovative treatments for cancer patients.

“Of course, our most important teamwork begins with our patients who choose to undertake a drug trial. Without their input none of this would be possible.

“Sir Bobby was a patient here and he absolutely understood how important the progression of clinical trials is, and the vital role patients play in that. I’m sure he’d be very proud to see the steps forward we’re all taking together.”

Officially opened by Sir Bobby on 20th February 2009, patients and staff at the Sir Bobby Centre work closely together to improve the treatment and diagnosis of cancer and study the effects of new drugs, for the benefit of this generation and generations to come.

As well as equipping the unit, the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation also funds training posts for a specialist clinical trials doctor and nurse within the centre.

Now one of the most active cancer clinical trials units in the UK, it was recognised as a CRUK Centre of Excellence for this activity in 2016.

It offers patients from across the North East and Cumbria access to early drug trials and potential new treatments, including immunotherapy drugs that are proving very effective for some cancers, which would otherwise be extremely difficult to treat.

The number of cases of cancer in the North East and Cumbria is higher than the national average and the Sir Bobby Centre sees around 300 new patients every year.

There has been an increase in clinical trials open to recruitment, currently over 50, and there has been an increase in referrals and patients going on to drug trials. Last year, (August 2017 – August 2018) there were 2,183 patient visits to the centre.

Often these are ‘first in human’ trials and the Sir Bobby Centre’s dedicated staff also coordinate trials of drugs at later stages of development, working with the National Cancer Networks to ensure patients get offered the best options for treatment. They also work closely with the Imaging Research Centre to improve diagnosis and study the effects of new drugs.

Many patients are also enrolled in other research studies, studying the biology and genetics of cancer to help develop and improve treatments.

Cancer drug trials are a team effort and in 2013 the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation was proud to join the Newcastle Cancer Centre.

This partnership launched in 2009 and is a collaboration of Cancer Research UK, the North of England Children’s Cancer Research Fund, Newcastle University and Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

By promoting closer links between scientists, doctors, nurses and funding organisations, the Newcastle Cancer Centre aims to speed the delivery of new therapies and improve cancer services.

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