Suki Balendra’s career has spanned academia, industry, central government and currently the UK’s NHS; working with the pharmaceutical Industry. She is working at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust as part of National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network (CRN), Suki’s role is focused on growing the commercial research opportunities for North West London. Suki provides a key perspective about how the Clinical Research landscape needs to maximize the changes that have occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic to move research into the future.
1. How did you get into the clinical research and industry and what career path did you take?
I began my career conducting my own research, undertaking my PhD in biochemistry at the University of Warwick, which helped to fulfil my childhood passion in science but also provided the opportunity to network and collaborate, which really set me on my career path.
Following my PhD, I went on to work at Abbot Diagnostics in the manufacturing capacity, this role required really strong attention to detail whilst working under extreme cost and time pressures.
I have had the privilege in my career to journey through all facets of research. In clinical research I focused my career within the Diabetes Research Network (DRN) in a national role. The DRN was in the early stages of development when I joined and I was integral to the setup of the network. I have dedicated the last 10 years to what has become my passion, growing research opportunities for the U.K I developed my expertise in business development in the Diabetes Research Network, with exceptional success in bringing more research opportunities in diabetes into the UK. This success has been replicated and sustained within the North West London CRN where I work within the NHS, regionally across 30 different therapeutic areas.
2. How do you think the research landscape will change over the next few years?
The life sciences sector played a pivotal role during the COVID-19 pandemic. To cope with the crisis, competitors partnered to accelerate research and develop the fastest novel vaccine in history. The UK government, the NHS and other parts of the research infrastructure all worked together to achieve this and continue to collaborate. This collaborative spirit shown by everyone is something we cannot lose.
In 2020 the life sciences industry went through a permanent irreversible change, as we did in the NHS. In this year and beyond, research delivery needs to be integrated into day-to-day care where possible. We will seestudies designed to recruit participants where their location and access to a specific site will not be restrictive, rather they can participate wherever they are. Whether that be at home, at school, in a pharmacy or other community settings. The studies designed by industry need to minimize patient visits where possible. Giving patients the ability to choose how to participate in trials. Either all clinic, all virtual or a hybrid.
The evolving, digital ways we’re now living with are allowing for some trial endpoints to be collected through digital devices e.g., wearables. Almost every trial will have some sort of decentralized element from app-based e-consent to more complex home visits schedule. The NHS, and other organizations, will need to be fully prepared for these types of studies.
The use of data to ensure we carry out the most robust feasibilities prior to starting a trial will be key. North West London already has access to rich data platforms which will be hugely important for this.
The life sciences industry and the research community are poised to evolve and involve patients in a way never seen before. Ultimately leading to better trials and better outcomes for our patients and our community.What do you see as the first step in addressing these challenges?
An immediate challenge for the research community is recovery from the pandemic and restart of all non-COVID research. In the first wave of the pandemic a lot of research was paused and now needs to be restarted in a completely different environment. In some therapeutic areas patient pathways have changed with patients no longer visiting healthcare settings for their routine appointments. We need to adapt our research accordingly. It is important the Life Sciences Industry sees the UK has recovered and is able to take on new studies that are non-COVID related as well as COVID studies.
4. What company/organization within Clinical Research inspires you and why? How do you think you can learn from it?
I work for Imperial College Healthcare NHS trust as part of NIHR and I’m extremely proud to work here. I’m privileged to work with amazing colleagues and they inspire me every day. I’m fortunate – I live in North West London and work in the community I live in.
5. What other industry do you think Clinical Research could take inspiration from?
The field of customer service is constantly adapting to the needs of the customer, even when it comes to the giants like Amazon and Google, they’re constantly looking at how they’re serving their customers in the best way. Our customer is the Life Sciences Industry and we work to deliver their commercial trials. Their needs are constantly evolving. What they needed 5-10 years ago from the NHS and NIHR is perhaps not the same as it is now. We have to understand the needs from the Life Sciences Industry now to inform the future of the Clinical Research landscape.
6. What do you think the patient population would say about the Clinical Research Industry?
Over the last 18 months, the public have got an insight into the Clinical Research landscape and Life Sciencesindustry like never before. It is interesting now to hear people talk about receiving the Pfizer or AZ Vaccine, where previously there never would have been the focus and awareness on the manufacturer of a vaccine; this shift has happened. There is an increased awareness in the community as a whole about research, trials, and the companies involved; and we need to capitalize on this now. We want every patient to be offered the opportunity to get involved in research. Every time a patient has an appointment with their healthcare professional, they should ask them about research and how they could get involved. Research should be in the very fabric of the healthcare system and the patients should be as involved in threading research through the system as the healthcare professionals themselves.
7. You have been involved in the IAOCR Taskforce for Core Competencies for Clinical Trial Site Staff, what value do these bring to clinical research sites, NHS and beyond the NHS?
These competencies can be a really useful guide for organisations, particularly the NHS, knowing that the competencies have been developed in collaboration with industry. For us, the competencies are being used to inform the development of accreditation standards for clinical trial site staff.
8. How does you think professional recognition for clinical research staff will help the individuals and the industry as a whole?
Professional recognition gives staff a sense of belonging within a clear structure, alongside a defined framework to work towards. The Clinical Research Industry will benefit knowing there is consistency across trial sites both in the UK and across the globe.
Furthermore, from a public confidence perspective, independent verification of staff competencies provides the public with reassurance knowing that staff across any trial site have gone through a similar training process and have a similar level of competencies regardless of where the research is delivered.
9. What advice would you give to someone starting out in their clinical research career?
When you’re first starting it is important to look at all your options; whether it’s the NHS, academia or Industry, look to what suits you best. It is also really valuable to stick with a role for a longer period of time then you might expect. Stay in your role and really learn your craft before moving onto the next stage, this will help you build a more rounded career. Also, when starting out it can be really useful to talk to people who you know in the Industry about what their role really involves and whether it would suit you. There’s so much out there and I don’t think it’s very clear the diversity of roles available. Thinking about roles like mine, we enable research to happen - our names are not on the published papers but they are essential for the research to happen, there are so many people that contribute to research behind the scenes.
10. What would you like your lasting legacy to the Clinical Research Industry to be?
Recently I have been leading the COVID-19 vaccines work in the region. In North West London we have so far recruited 2,300 participants into 8 different COVID-19 vaccine studies. This extraordinary achievement was not just a product of brilliant science we also needed a radically different way of supporting these studies. The collaboration this led us to form – the North West London Clinical Trials Alliance is between the clinical research facilities, primary care network and the North West London CRN. Our partners are Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust (LNWH). The spirit of collaboration shown by everyone involved in this phenomenal effort was fundamental to the success of these vaccine trials.
The alliance that was born out of necessity in the pandemic, is now a great opportunity for us to learn the lessons of our success – bottling the formula we have developed to tackle COVID and applying it to other disease areas. This I hope will be a part of my legacy.