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Navigating the frontiers of mental health research

Amanda Colston is a Senior Research Nurse and Team Lead at the NIHR Oxford Cognitive Health Clinical Research Facility (CRF), the only dedicated mental health CRF in England.

Amanda ColstonHosted in Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust’s Warneford Hospital, the CRF delivers early-phase experimental clinical research on treatment-resistant depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and dementia. It is currently running ten clinical research studies, with up to 15 in set-up.

Amanda’s role is to oversee the CRF’s dementia studies and the team of research nurses. She received funding from the OAHP Research Development Awards to support her through an MSc in Clinical Research with the School of Pharmacology at Cardiff University.

“I knew I wanted to stay in research, but I want to progress in my career,” says Amanda, who self-funded the first year and returned to the course after a break during the pandemic, where she coordinated the Novavax vaccine study. “Since our CRF works with both commercial and non-commercial partners, this training gives me a much better understanding of drug development, and knowledge of where we are in the cycle. This is great knowledge to have, whether I’m talking to a research participant or a drug company.”

Now in her third year of study, Amanda is undertaking a systematic review of the aftercare needed for patients who receive genetic results as part of a clinical trial. “When we do dementia treatment trials, we will look at biomarkers in the blood to see the likelihood that our participants will develop dementia in the future. They will then be told the results of their test, whether they enter the trial or not.

“Crucially, with this information about their future at hand, our patients will need to be cared for to make sure they are ok. They might need access to a psychiatrist or a counsellor. Yet there hasn’t been any really good research to see what people need, so that’s what I’m looking to find out.”

Amanda was attracted to a career as a research nurse after taking part in a research project when she was an acute nurse in a general hospital.

“It was just fantastic to be at the cutting edge of new treatments and to work with healthy volunteers who give their time just for the benefit of others. In our role as research nurses, we can make a difference not just to the few patients we are working with on any given day, but to the world,” says Amanda, who now finds herself fully immersed in the world of research.

With further study potentially on the horizon, Amanda’s more immediate goal is for the MSc to equip her with a broader knowledge base that her team can call on, as well as giving her the experience to mentor others who are undertaking training.

“Having a level of analysis and overview means you can step back from a situation and consider the best available evidence before developing a study. For patients, they can be confident that the work we do has a good basis in science. It’s such exciting work, I love it!”