An Industrial Placement Year at Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development

Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest charitable funder of cancer research, relying on donations from the public to carry out research, advocacy, and public policy for all cancer types. Over the years, Cancer Research UK and its predecessors have contributed towards 50 of the top cancer drugs, 20 of which are listed on the World Health Organisation’s list of ‘Essential Medicines’. Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development (CDD) facilitates the development of cancer therapies by partnering with industry and academia, helping to guide novel agents through the clinical trial pathway; this helps researchers ensure that their drugs are both safe and effective cancer treatments. It is the world’s only charity-funded drug development facility and has contributed to the development of six agents that have successfully passed each stage of the clinical trial pathway and have been registered as medicines; this includes Zytiga, Rubraca and Temodal, which are now international frontline treatments for prostate, ovarian and brain cancers respectively. In the last 30 years, the CDD has delivered 160 early phase oncology trials and currently has 18 agents under active development. Since 2011, the CDD has opened its doors to industrial placement students from across the country, enabling them to help play a part in the clinical trial process.

The CDD placement scheme

Before starting, I was sceptical of the impact that a placement year would have. Like many students, I understood that this would be a good opportunity to add a few skills to my CV and gain experience working in an industrial pharmaceutical environment. I expected to be involved in a few inconsequential tasks but found, throughout my experience here, that my opinions were valued, included, and sought out. The CDD has hosted students from different universities across the country since 2011 and nearly 50% of placement year students have returned to work at CRUK after graduating, with many of the others pursuing careers in clinical trials or scientific research.

The CDD advertised for three separate positions the year I applied: the student portfolio analyst, student clinical study coordinator and a student medical writing and pharmacovigilance assistant. I applied for the latter role, which sits within the Quality, Regulatory and Pharmacovigilance Team (QRPV). Each of these roles requires an online application, including a CV submission and questionnaire. Candidates are then shortlisted based on questionnaire responses and invited for an interview. The candidate selection process meets Cancer Research UK’s Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) objectives; the submitted CVs are blinded and only accessible after selection and employees involved in the selection process undergo inclusivity and bias training in advance.

My role within Cancer Research UK

Within QRPV, I worked cross-functionally between the medical writing and pharmacovigilance departments and was, from my very first week, able to gain an overview of the activities involved from set-up to completion of early phase clinical trials. When starting, I had very limited knowledge of good clinical practice (GCP) guidelines and requirements but was given extensive training and reading at the start of my placement, which enabled me to ensure my work always followed set guidelines, for the benefit of the patient, the Investigator, and the Sponsor.

With the medical writing team, I helped develop and collate clinical trial documents, such as the clinical study reports (CSRs) and Investigator’s Brochures (IBs), that effectively and clearly describe research methods, results, product use, and other medical information. Medical writing also leads the reporting of trial results to regulatory authorities, the MHRA in the UK, and the public, through and the CRUK website. I found pharmacovigilance, the practice of assessing risks of investigative medicinal products (IMPs) against their benefits to ensure they are safe and effective for patient use particularly interesting in an early phase oncology setting. Many of the therapies developed by the CDD are first-in-human and sometimes first-in-class drugs, so seeing how they interact within the human body, particularly with unintended off-targets to produce unexpected adverse reactions, was intriguing. With pharmacovigilance, I carried out data entry for serious adverse events (SAEs) into the pharmacovigilance database where SAEs are collected, reviewed by CDD medics, and distributed to all relevant parties. I also helped review and edit development safety update reports, the annual reports which summarise the safety of a medicinal product.

This year, the MHRA performed an inspection focusing on reference safety information, with a focus on both my teams. Preparing for the inspection process and sitting in on the mock interviews of my colleagues helped me to understand the differences in processes between the charity and other pharmaceutical companies and gain a wider appreciation for the regulatory guidelines involved in clinical trials.

Working groups and experiences

The push for personal development and encouragement for employees to take part in activities beyond the scope of their role profile is one of the main things that I found beneficial about a placement year at Cancer Research UK. Through the Fuse learning platform and involvement in different working groups, I was able to maximise the opportunities I could take part in throughout my placement. Cancer Research UK-wide fundraising opportunities, like Stand Up to Cancer, and Race for Life are also great ways to get involved and are really exciting times for the whole charity!

CDD students can also get more direct input into CDD initiatives through working groups, such as the Data Sharing Working Group, Patient Involvement Working group and the CDD Comms champs. As I had previous experience writing for various student publications, I was interested in joining the Comms Champs, a working group which aims to share CDD successes with the rest of the charity through internal newsletters, like Spotlight, or with the public, through external-facing communications created with the CRUK press office. As part of my work with the Comms Champs, I was able to exercise my writing skills for internal news pieces but also initiate and organise for Cancer Research UK to speak at Pint of Science, an international science festival which shares scientific research with the public.

The patient involvement group was another team I thoroughly enjoyed contributing to; the Cancer Insights Panel which I was able to observe in the first few months of my placement was fascinating, seeing how much collaboration and patient input goes into all patient-facing documents made me appreciate how well-thought-out the decisions behind the structure, design and phrasing of certain documents were. This led me to be involved in an initiative to translate informed consent documents for non-English speaking patients and a project where Cancer Research UK collaborates with Stitch, to create a clinical trial app that enables patient feedback.

Overall thoughts

There is a distinct sense within the charity that everyone here plays a vital role in driving forward cancer research for the benefit of our patients, and the wider population who have or will be affected by cancer. The work environment contrasted many of the experiences I have had in other jobs: my colleagues at Cancer Research UK have been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about the work that they do, and the close to 50% return rate of placement students is a testament to this. Throughout my time at Cancer Research UK I have enjoyed witnessing the passion with which different teams operate and have had the opportunity to gain and develop beneficial skills which I can apply to the final years of my degree and in my future career.


Tharushi Wijesiriwardena, Medical Writing and Pharmacovigilance Placement Student

July 2021-July 2022