Dr Brent O'Carrigan, 2015 NSW Premier's John Monash Scholar, has recently been appointed as co-lead of the Urologic Malignancies Programme at the University of Cambridge Cancer Centre. He is principal investigator for a broad portfolio of academic and commercial clinical trials in both kidney cancer and melanoma, including cellular therapy trials. He trained in Sydney and London, completing a fellowship in early phase cancer trials at the Royal Marsden Hospital and PhD in translational cancer research in immuno-oncology at the University of Cambridge, awarded both a General Sir John Monash Foundation and Cambridge Trust International Scholarship. We spoke with Brent about his professional journey since receiving the John Monash Scholarship, his new role and what leadership means to him.
Hi Brent, Congratulations on your new appointment! What does this role entail?
Hello! I've been appointed co-lead of the Urologic Malignancies Programme at the University of Cambridge Cancer Centre. I oversee and help develop the strategic priorities for academic research into cancers of the kidney, bladder and prostate, across the Cambridge biomedical campus and with our collaborators in the UK and globally. Sometimes it's running our own investigator-initiated clinical studies for example, of a 'window' trial where patients planned for surgery to remove kidney cancer test new therapeutics in the window of time before surgery so we can see the effect of these on the tumour; or large scale bio-sampling trials where we collect blood samples or other tissue at many points during a patient journey (from diagnosis, surgery, relapse, later treatments) to better study the biology and behaviour of kidney cancer. Other times it is leading cross-functional teams and liaising with key stakeholders to develop new programmes of research and form new collaborations with other academic centres or commercial partners.
How will this new role take your career trajectory to new heights?
It's an exciting role, to be at the vanguard of research into urologic cancers and see how these trials that we have designed have a direct connection to our current patients and impact the care for future patients. It's humbling to see how broad a church is needed to design and run clinical trials; research nurses, data managers, colleagues in ethics and regulatory roles, statisticians, pharmacists, laboratory scientists, project managers and many others. The skills to understand a team, what motivates a team and bring that team toward a common purpose and clear outcomes is exhilarating.
You recently were a Clinical Lead (Cancer) at NHS East Genomics. Will you still be involved in this role? If not, what were your biggest learnings from this experience that you will take away?
Yes, I'll be continuing in that exciting role also. My time will be split approximately 20 (urologic research) : 20 (clinical genomics) : 60 (clinical care of patients). The roles are all complementary and inter-dependent in various ways. The clinical care of patients is my passion and drives our research questions - how can we do better, how can we improve the care for patients? Genomics (study of genetic differences in cancer) has transformed much of current cancer care and is having an emerging impact on urologic cancers; many of our trials leverage what we already know about genetic changes in urologic cancers to study unanswered questions.
How has effective leadership propelled your career forward?
It has been a central focus and I actively try to reflect and refine my leadership skills, learning from key effective role models both in medicine and other disciplines. The ability to bring large teams together leverages our capacity to achieve so much more, with such a lasting impact. In many ways this is the defining feature of human endeavour in medicine and all fields of enquiry.
Has being a John Monash Scholar positively impacted your career since your studies?
Absolutely! I simply wouldn't be here without the General Sir John Monash scholarship. When I was a registrar in specialist training in Sydney I was extremely fortunate to be awarded a Monash scholarship in 2015 and that has transformed the career trajectories of both myself, and also my wife (Dr Aditi Vedi). We are both clinician-researchers, Aditi in children's cancers, and she was awarded a Gates Cambridge scholarship around the same time. These two awards propelled us to London for separate fellowships at The Royal Marsden cancer centre, then to Cambridge for separate PhDs in cancer research.
Outside of your new role, what are your plans for this upcoming year?
We're parents to 3 young kids (ages 7,5,2) so have a year packed full of activities times to the school holidays, as so many working parents do! Now travel restrictions have eased after COVID we're excited to have family visit from Australia and travel throughout the UK and Europe.
What are some words of advice you have to share with this year’s cohort of John Monash Scholars as they embark on their journey’s across the world?
Follow you passion and find your voice. The John Monash community is fantastic, savour it! The breadth of disciplines supported is incredible. I've learned so much from Monash colleagues in fantastic fields like architecture, visual arts, central American history, equity (or not) of international taxation agreements and many more!