Reflections on 23 Years (and Counting) of Clinical Research

Mary Jane Staab, RN, oncology nurse with the UW Carbone Cancer CenterMary Jane Staab, RN was an oncology nurse 23 years ago, when she was approached with an offer to join the genitourinary clinical research team at UW Carbone Cancer Center, focusing on prostate, kidney and bladder cancer.


As a clinical research nurse, she works with patients to enroll them in clinical trials to find better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancers. These trials are designed to help physicians and research teams more rapidly answer clinical questions that lead to improved patient outcomes.

“When I first started, we just weren’t seeing a benefit for many of the trials,” Staab says. “I had to change my perspective early on, because maybe the treatment wasn’t helping, but I knew I was making a difference on an individual basis by offering hope to the patient.”

Staab, now a clinical research program manager, says clinical research is vastly different today compared to when she started. There are more trials than ever – UW Carbone typically has more than 250 trials open for many different cancer types – and she has seen her and her colleagues’ work make a difference.

“Each study you do helps contribute to the greater knowledge and gets you one step further, and one step finally opens the door to different treatments,” Staab says.

One cancer that has seen a huge boost from clinical research during Staab’s career is kidney cancer.

“Prior to the 2000s, the trials offered combinations of drugs for which most patients didn’t see a benefit,” Staab says. “But now, with the anti-VEGF treatments and immune checkpoint inhibitors, we are seeing more kidney cancer patients responding to treatment.”

She has also seen more and more benefit to prostate cancer patients, though not as profound a difference as kidney cancer patients have seen over the past few decades. When Staab began her clinical research career, hormone therapy for prostate cancer was the standard of care, and was already helping many men with the disease to live longer.

“But once prostate cancers started to grow, after the hormones were no longer working, that was when we were researching different therapies and weren’t seeing any major changes,” Staab says. “Until the past 15 years. Now there are a lot more drugs out there for prostate cancer, too.”

In her newer role as a clinical research manager, Staab says she rarely works directly with patients. Her new role is to work with physicians and pharmaceutical companies to initiate new trials, and to streamline the process so that the trials are brought to UW Carbone more quickly. She also helps evaluate the trials for UW Carbone’s patient population, ensuring that patients here are more likely to meet the eligibility criteria to enroll.

After 23 years, Staab says she would absolutely recommend her job, or any job in clinical research, to someone looking to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients.

“I’m very proud to work here, and I still get excited about what I do,” Staab says. “It’s so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day that we forget the bigger picture. It’s good to take a step back and remember this is all contributing to the greater mission of the cancer center, and ultimately we are working to improve the lives of patients with cancer.”


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Date Published: 01/12/2018

News tag(s):  Advancescancer

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