Meet Dr Annya Smyth: EPSRC IRC Proteus Clinical Study Manager

Annya discusses her role in the PROTEUS team, and an in-depth explanation of the clinical study.

You have a PhD in neuroscience; what led you to manage the set-up and running of the clinical study associated with PROTEUS project?

During my PhD I utilised a number of molecular imaging techniques to understand how neuronal cells communicate with each other to propagate a signal. Molecular imaging is now starting to play an important role in the evaluation and treatment of a variety of diseases. PROTEUS was a perfect fit for me as it offered an opportunity to work within a large group of interdisciplinary research scientists and clinicians to develop state-of-the-art imaging technology that has huge clinical application in the field of respiratory medicine and beyond.

How much of your academic background do you bring to your current role?

My academic training has provided me with a good understanding of the different dimensions of the optical technology that’s central to this project, and the techniques employed in the lab to validate the optical Smartprobes. I haven’t worked in a lab in a few years, but my academic background enables me to “speak the same language” as the scientists, engineers and machine learners, to broadly understand the different dimensions of the project that will be brought together as part of the clinical studies.

What are your responsibilities in PROTEUS?

I am responsible for managing the design, set-up and running of the clinical studies that test both the optical Smartprobes and the evolving technology. This includes designing and developing the clinical protocols alongside the lead clinicians, obtaining the necessary approvals and working closely with the Sponsor and clinical staff to ensure the study runs smoothly. I’ve also renewed my research passport to help our clinical team in the hospital to carry out the research, if it’s needed. It’s a great chance to meet the patients involved and to make sure the studies we design in our office actually work well in a clinical environment.

The process of bringing PROTEUS into commercial use is incredibly complex – can you walk us through the protocol?

The ultimate aim of the PROTEUS project is to develop technology that is accessible to clinicians worldwide, but this is a few years off. Right now we are running small, local studies to test the individual components of the technology, but we’ll eventually conduct a large regulated clinical trial to obtain valuable data about the functionality of the final imaging platform prior to potential commercialisation.

What stage of this process are PROTEUS at now?

The PROTEUS project is about halfway through its journey-we are now at the stage of our first clinical study that’s due to start in July 2016. The end goal of the project, in June 2018, is to test the fully functioning Smartprobe delivery, imaging and sensing system for the first time in humans.

Why is this clinical study important?

So far we have tested and evaluated our imaging system in animal lungs and now we are at the stage of moving the technology into humans. We want to develop a novel approach to address the unmet needs of identifying and measuring pulmonary fibroproliferative pathway.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced bringing PROTEUS to its first clinical study?

The biggest challenge to date, and I honestly don’t think it’s a challenge in the true sense of the word, is to ensure that those involved in working with us and approving the Versicolour device and Smartprobes for clinical use are a fully integrated part of this journey, and appreciate the low risk nature of the technology. We’ve already demonstrated that the Smartprobe and device are safe for clinical use, but the novel approach that we’re using and the state-of-the-art technology will always challenge existing perceptions which are based around more conventional research tools that are currently in use.

What challenges lie ahead?

A potential challenge that I can see in the future is the integration of the sensors to our technology. In saying that, the team have come a long way so far and are well capable of jumping any possible technical hurdles.

What excites you most about the PROTEUS project?

The PROTEUS project understands the current restrictions and limitations of current techniques and wants to push boundaries of science and technology. We are pushing our technology to the frontiers of clinical research to improve the diagnosis and prognosis of patients with a variety of conditions. I really relish being involved in a research project that could actually make a difference in people’s lives, and can’t wait to see where the future takes us.

What has been the highlight of your experience working as part of the PROTEUS team?

The highlight so far is working with so many talented people from many different disciplines as part of one academic project. The opportunity to learn everything from the intricate anatomy of the lung to how light passes down the fibre is incredibly unique, and I think that it should be something all researchers are exposed to!

And finally, what do you do when you haven’t got your research facilitator hat on?

I talk about getting a new bike to improve my daily commute far too much- I just need to get on with it!

Interview conducted by Kate Boyd Crotty and Jessica Davis, Science Communication Master Students

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