From Petri-dishes to people – making the move to clinical trials

Dr Sandra Galvin enjoys the science, scope and social buzz of coordinating the HRB Trials Methodology Research Network. She talks to Claire O'Connell.

Sandra Galvin

When Sandra Galvin was a young girl, she knew she wanted to do a PhD when she grew up.

She has no idea where she got the notion, but combine this with the Christmas requests for microscopes and chemistry sets and the curious questions she would ask about the world, and it was clear that she would one day be a scientist.

Her young self would no doubt be happy to hear that Dr Galvin did do a PhD – she looked at antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment – and that she has since gone on to become the Coordinator of the Health Research Board Trials Methodology Research Network.

The new post, at NUI Galway’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, sees her building a network of experts who can improve the ‘how’ of clinical trials in Ireland, whether it’s coming up with new ways to recruit patients or using more sophisticated trial designs to deliver better impact for patients.

Building trials without tribulations

‘Our main goal is to improve the methodologies that are used in clinical trials, and that spans a huge amount of studies across drug treatments, biomedical devices and behavioural changes’, she explains. ‘We provide a go-to place or signposting service for people working on clinical trials who have questions about the types of methodologies they can use’.

Developing and leading more groundbreaking clinical trials will position Ireland better globally as a centre for more such studies, and this spells good news for health services and patients, notes Dr Galvin.

‘We want people to take a little more time on trial planning and design and to not be afraid of pushing the boundaries - we can link people in with the experts to help them with that’, she says.

Research for better-behaved bugs

As well as linking with the experts, the HRB-TMRN is supporting research within trials themselves. One ‘study-within-a-trial’ in NUI Galway is looking at how best to get GPs and patients involved in a study to improve prescribing practices for antibiotics.  

It’s a subject close to Dr Galvin’s heart: she trained as a microbiologist in University College Cork and then carried out PhD research with the Discipline of Clinical Bacteriology at NUI Galway on the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria in water, particularly from hospital waste.

From there she moved to Beaumont Hospital and worked with the Royal College of Surgeons and Dublin City University on a new device to kill potentially harmful bugs on hospital surfaces. 

Next was Dr Galvin’s first foray into clinical trials. Through a HRB ICE fellowship in NUI Galway she worked on the SIMPle Study, informing GPs about appropriate prescribing practices to reduce antibiotic resistance and preserve antibiotic effectiveness in the community.

The jump from lab-based research to clinical trials was both different and exciting. ‘I went from Petri dishes to people’, recalls Dr Galvin. ’I was able to take the knowledge of the lab side and translate it into evidence for the GPs to change in primary care. It was fascinating and I got to meet so many people and really see a change’.

The bigger picture

The HRB-TMRN role now gives her an overview of the clinical trials world, she explains. ‘I still have the research element and I also get to work with people with different skills and backgrounds, that is what is brilliant’.

The day-to-day work is varied: planning and running educational events, dealing with requests that come in from the network, sourcing information for communications and social media and coordinating funding for trial methodology research.

‘So far the network has had great momentum and great support - the enthusiasm trialists around the country have shown for improving trial methodology has blown us away a little bit, and we have a lot of exciting events planned’, says Dr Galvin.

‘We want Irish trialists to think about advancing methodology - we don’t want methodology to be an afterthought  - and the more good quality trials we have in the country the better access we will have to the leading developments in healthcare services’.

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