Collaboration • Knowledge • Leadership
On its face, the idea of a Clinical Trial Network (CTN) might not sound like blockbuster material. But Angela Scheppokat’s excitement on the subject is infectious.
“If I was drawing a cartoon about it, it would be like a superhero gang of clinician scientists,” she says.
Angela is a former bench chemist who later worked as a clinical trials monitor on multinational commercial pharmaceutical trials. That role entailed ensuring clinical trials were conducted “in a way that protects the safety and wellbeing of research participants as well as the quality of the results”.
These days she’s channelling those skills and experiences into her role as Sponsor Operations Manager at Orygen, helping guide the youth mental health juggernaut’s sizeable research portfolio.
“Part of our organisation is delivering services. The other part is developing better treatment paradigms and therapeutic models that help people and will be translatable to real life,” she says.
“My job is making sure we conduct our research in a way that suits the needs of participants and researchers, and also the needs of regulators and other agencies to make sure everything's done in an ethical and compliant way.”
It’s easy to understand then why Angela lights up when the conversation turns to CTNs. These networks, she says, are about “real-world healthcare providers, clinicians at the coal face of delivering treatments, who band together” to share, test and refine ideas and data.
Such networks are a far cry from the image of diabolical Big Pharma exploiting research for profit. The trials, says Angela, tend to be “practical and pragmatic” and “done for very little money” because the goal is better treatment outcomes, rather than creating a profitable product.
“The research that gets done is consumer focused,” she says. “It's real-world, and the results are either, ‘That didn't work’ or ‘That did work’. And because it's done by clinicians, for clinicians and patients, those results can get translated into practice.”
Orygen, with Mental Health Victoria’s support, has made a pitch to the Victorian Government to fund a youth mental health CTN to be delivered by Orygen.
It’s a relatively small outlay — just $2 million dollars a year, leveraging Orygen’s existing infrastructure — but the impacts would be huge.
Angela points overseas to Sweden for an example of just how significant they could be.
“In Sweden they spend 2 per cent of their GDP on registries — datasets pooling routinely-collected clinical data, that are often managed within the equivalent of a network,” she says.
“They can run trials and interrogate health data that's already there, rather than having to go out and spend money on generating it again.
“Once you've got networks and registries, you can access existing data to ask really complex questions, and answer them like that,” says Angela.
“Networks connect and coordinate – consumers, clinicians, efforts, resources. It's just such a smart way to get the best for people accessing or delivering healthcare.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on mental health — particularly youth mental health — have underlined the need for treatments that have proven beneficial outcomes. “We need to be smarter about how we help people and smarter about how we spend our resources,” says Angela.
“Networks are all about bringing people together and disseminating results. Orygen is well placed to be pivotal for a youth mental health network because that's exactly what we're already trying to do. And we are working with Australian Clinical Trials Alliance to make sure we do that in the right way.
“It's about not holding on to research data,” Angela says, “but bringing together every person who could possibly be involved in that research and getting them to be part of it. And advocating for change once you've got results that are worth advocating for.”
The youth network would operate collaboratively with other clinical trial networks such as Growing Minds Australia, the Australian Early Psychosis Collaborative Consortium and Mental Health Australia General Clinical Trial Network.
“Bringing researchers together to leverage resources and expertise is the key to maximising benefit for young people.”
As part of our 22-point State Budget Submission, Mental Health Victoria has called on the Victorian Government to establish and fund a Clinical Trial Network (CTN) in Youth Mental Health to be delivered by Orygen.