Why I’m proud to be a Principal Investigator for sexual health research

Lisa Southon

Author: Lisa Southon

Senior Clinical Research Nurse

When Lisa Southon, Senior Clinical Research Nurse in the Contraception, Sexual Health and HIV Service, was a student nurse, she had absolutely no interest in doing clinical research. However, 15 years later as a band 7 senior clinical research nurse she is a research pioneer at MFT, building a clinical research team and making her debut as a Principal Investigator (PI) on a national sexual health study. Lisa shares her story…

I’ve worked in sexual health nursing for a number of years and really enjoy my role.  You build up a relationship of great trust with patients, who share with you some very intimate aspects of their life.  Seven years after completing my Specialist Nurse training in Genitourinary/HIV medicine, I was looking for a new challenge.

Encouraged by a number of senior colleagues and Dr Gabriel Schembri, our service’s Research Lead, I applied for a one-year secondment as a clinical research nurse in sexual health.  It was a real turning point and I enjoyed learning about how to set up and run research studies.  In fact, the secondment was extended for a second year and I then had to choose between returning to my specialist nurse role or developing my skills and career in clinical research.

In December 2014, I took the plunge and remained in research and it’s been a hugely rewarding and positive move.  I’ve had the opportunity not only to develop my own skills and knowledge, but also help to build and mentor a six-strong clinical and non- clinical research team within our service.

The Sexual Health Team

The Sexual Health Team

The sexual health team is very research-active, and the entire department gets involved in studies.  We currently have 11 studies underway and another five about to start.  These range from HIV and drug management projects to work on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), Herpes, Gonorrhoea and genital warts, including trialling potential vaccinations.

Dr Schembri is the PI for most studies, but last year he invited me to take on the PI role for a new national study, safetxt.  Thanks to his support, I’m now one of very few nurse PIs at MFT, and I’m really enjoying the challenge.

Safetxt is a randomised controlled trial of a safer sex intervention, run by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and funded by the NIHR. The study is testing whether regular text messages providing STI information and tips to increase safer sex help young people aged 16-24 to adopt safer sex behaviours.  This age group has a higher level of transmission rate of STIs, and if there is evidence that this intervention reduces transmission rates, it may be adopted as part of public health practice to improve sexual health across the UK. 

My role as PI involved assisting with the study set up, identifying/ screening of patients and approaching those identified who have been treated by our service if they would like to join the study.  From November 2017 to July 2018, I’ve recruited 48 participants, taking personal responsibility for running the study as PI but also working with my brilliant clinical research team. 

The study ends in September 2018, when all of the data that has been collected by the co-ordinating team in London and ultimately the study findings will be published.  The Manchester participants have been very positive about the study, particularly the fact it’s based on receiving regular text messages about STI’s/safer sex which they can keep or delete, a personal choice which will depend on their confidentiality.

If any other MFT clinical research nurses are considering taking on a PI role, I’d say seize the opportunity.  It’s been a massively valuable experience in terms of developing my knowledge and confidence, and I hope to continue this role as PI on further studies in the future. 

I’m proud to be contributing to generating research income for MFT and enhancing our department’s excellent reputation for research.  It’s also rewarding to know that our work on safetxt could change public health policy and help prevent STI transmission in the future.