Dr. Voon Pei Jye is currently a Medical Oncologist at Hospital Umum Sarawak. He earned his medical degree from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) in 2001. In 2007, he was accorded the membership of the Royal College of Physician United Kingdom and a Master in Medicine (Internal Medicine) from the National University of Singapore. He then went on to obtain Advanced Specialist Training in Medical Oncology in Singapore in May 2012.
Dr. Voon is an active member of various national and international societies such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), Singapore Cancer Society, Upper Gastrointestinal Tract National Chemotherapy Protocol Update Committee, as well as an Independent reviewer for Oncology Trials for the Medical Research and Ethics Committee (MREC), Ministry of Health Malaysia.
As a young medical oncologist, Dr. Voon has vast experience in conducting industry sponsored research. He is currently principal investigator for five ongoing trials and sub-investigator for six trials. He has also co-authored papers reporting clinical findings in several international peer-reviewed journals. Despite his busy schedule, Dr. Voon has presented at various national and international conferences including the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the Asian Oncology Summit, the World Congress for Endoscopic Surgery of the Skull Base and Brain, as well as in the Annual Scientific Conference of the Malaysian Oncological Society.
Although a highly sought after oncologist, Dr. Voon remains a humble and down-to-earth clinician. He recently shared with CRM his experience as a principal investigator.
Can you please tell us when and how did you first got involved in industry sponsored research?
Traditionally, Hospital Umum Sarawak has a robust landscape for clinical trials. I still remember clearly my medical officer days in our Cardiology Department, whereby we will have a daily early morning research meeting to update on the ongoing trials in the department. This was my initial exposure to industry sponsored research. It was during my subspecialty training in Medical Oncology at the National University Hospital of Singapore (NUHS) that propelled my interest into clinical research. The breadth of experience and exposure that I encountered at this centre further consolidate my conviction on the importance of clinical trials as a cornerstone to the development of medicine in general and specifically for oncology.
How did clinical trials change your practice and management on patient care?
Essentially, the principles of our day to day clinical practice do not change with clinical trials as the guiding principle for clinical trial (ie. Good Clinical Practice) is in accordance to these pivotal principles. What clinical trials provide are extra options in the management of patients. These options are crucial in disciplines like oncology as treatment choices are always very limited especially in advanced stages. Such dire situation is further compounded by non-sustainable substantial cost of the latest oncology treatment. Thus, clinical trials provide invaluable access of potential drugs to patients who may otherwise have limited options for effective treatment.
There are many challenges faced by investigators during the course of a clinical trial. What would be your main challenge and how do you handle it?
Time. It is definitely the major challenge faced by majority of investigators in our country. I believe almost all investigators in Malaysia have their own clinical duty in addition to conducting clinical trials. As a result, most of the clinical trial activities are conducted outside normal working hours, for example during lunch breaks and after office hours. Hence, good time management especially in planning the daily activities ahead is essential in ensuring the smooth running of a particular trial without affecting the other duties of a clinician.
As an investigator, what is the most rewarding part of being in a clinical trial?
The ability to expand the access of treatment options to my patients, especially in Phase 3 trials whereby the standard therapy arm of the trial is too costly for patients to afford. Furthermore, participants in the trials may be the first few in the world to have access to the most advanced therapy that will only be available to others in a couple of years. In addition, participating in a clinical trial also provides a chance for clinicians to engage in the development of better drugs and treatment.
In your opinion, what type of attitude/s makes a good investigator?
Targets and timelines are very demanding especially for a clinician with other clinical duties. Thus, it is pivotal for investigators to be well disciplined in conducting clinical trials especially with the numerous targets and timeline that needs to be met. Besides, diligence, dedication, perseverance and a never-give-up attitude are crucial when faced with difficulties in a trial. A successful investigator should also be flexible and resourceful to look for alternative avenues in resolving any emerging issues.
You were recently named the highest recruiter globally for the SOLAR study. Can you share with us how you managed to achieve the high recruitment numbers? Any strategies involved?
One word. TEAMWORK! I owe it to all my dedicated team members that had made this coveted goal a reality. My team members range from co-investigators, study coordinators, pharmacists and nurses who have worked relentlessly to ensure the success of this trial. The key strategy is building a dedicated clinical research team that are able to work independently at the individual level but also as a team.
Back in 2014, there was only one dedicated study coordinator for oncology trials. During that time, more than 10 ongoing clinical trials were being conducted at our centre, ranging from phase 1b to phase 3. As we progressed, we rapidly expanded the team to four study coordinators over the span of three years.
We have to express our gratitude to CRM for providing us with study coordinators. In addition to working with our own team, we have been working closely with our colleagues in other disciplines including, radiology, pathology, pulmonology and surgery who have contributed to the smooth running of the trials. Furthermore, we have been communicating effectively with contract research organizations and sponsors to resolve issues and ensure that the quality of the trials are constantly upheld. In summary, great team work and effective communication with others are the major elements in ensuring the success of a trial.
What drives your passion in clinical research?
Seeing our very own patients who have limited treatment options, having the same chance and opportunity to participate in trials which are being conducted in developed countries as well as in major cancer centres throughout the world is truly gratifying.
I personally feel that this is a tad bit that I can contribute to my patients, besides providing the daily conventional clinical services. Furthermore, the potential possibility of placing Hospital Umum Sarawak as an esteemed research center on the map for industry sponsored research also motivates our team to strive harder and better!
With the current services provided by CRM, how else do you think CRM can support investigators?
Firstly, I have to express my sincere gratitude to CRM in providing essential services in making industry sponsored research possible at our center. We definitely can’t achieve our current milestone without the support from CRM. At this point, I think CRM has provided a comprehensive service that are holding the platform for industry sponsored research in this country. Nevertheless, I hope CRM will continue to provide more human resources support especially in increasing study coordinators to ensure clinical trials are executed with good quality. Study coordinators are the core element in the day to day running of a trial. Furthermore, CRM should increase training and support for new investigators and fledgling centres that are beginning to conduct clinical trials.
What changes/improvements would you wish to see being made by the policy makers to create a more conducive ecosystem for the conduct of clinical trials in Malaysia?
I wish the policy makers will be building an ecosystem that is looking into early phases of clinical trial including first in human trials. I believe this is the dream of most investigators everywhere, particularly if it is our own investigator initiated trials. I understand such move is ongoing and I hope a well-structured platform for these early phases trial will be ready soon. Furthermore, as time constraint is always the major limiting factor for investigators, a dedicated time for research should be encouraged especially for investigators who are overwhelmed by the day to day clinical duties. In addition, recognition and acknowledgement for successful investigators will be a positive incentive for those that have gone the extra mile in taking up the investigator’s role.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
During my leisure time, I love to travel and read. Both traveling and reading open my horizon and gives me a new perspective on life!