Launching a clinical trial is a lot like leaping from an airplane, says Colette Chaney:
“You’re scared, you’re exhilarated and you’re hoping for a positive outcome.”
The longtime clinical research nurse would know. She’s stood in front of an open door on a plane, steeling herself to skydive. And she’s infused patients with revved-up T cells that had never before been tested in humans.
Since joining Fred Hutch in 2004, Chaney has helped usher advances in immunotherapy from the lab to the clinic and back again. For countless patients enrolled in clinical trials here, she’s been the kind face at medicine’s frontier.
“This work is the epitome of bench-to-bedside research,” said Chaney, now the clinical program operations manager for the Immunotherapy Integrated Research Center. “Our partnership with patients — their trust and willingness to engage with these research efforts — has brought us to where we are today, which is an explosion in novel new agents that show great promise in possibly curing cancer.”
Last week, what Chaney modestly describes as her “small role” in that explosion was honored by March of Dimes Washington. The organization named her its 2018 Nurse of the Year for Research Advancement, which recognizes nurses who use research to guide practice and develop policies.
In supporting her nomination for the award, Hutch immunology researcher Dr. Cameron Turtle called Chaney a “driving force” for the Hutch’s immunotherapy program.
“Colette has always been meticulous in her approach to patient care, trial implementation and administration, training and research conduct,” he said. “It is through her efforts that numerous patients have been able to benefit from immunotherapy. She cares deeply about her patients and the mission of curing cancer, and her patients care deeply about her.”
Winning the award was an overwhelming moment, Chaney said. “To me, it’s a validation of the role of nursing in research and the importance of the skills that we bring in support of this bench-to-bedside treatment approach.”
The award has also been an opportunity to reflect on the opportunities and support she’s received over the years. With her prior experience in research and transplants, Chaney said joining Fred Hutch 14 years ago felt like arriving at a mecca of innovation. She was eager to help probe the boundaries of immunotherapy.
“I always felt like my personal immune system was the key to my well-being,” she said. “When Dr. [Stanley] Riddell, the physician who hired me, shared his vision, I was like ‘right on! I’m with you on this!’”
Riddell recently expressed his appreciation for their long collaboration, saying of Chaney: “You were singularly responsible for fixing the research nurse role in the program and enacting a vision that I had for what our immunotherapy program could be.”
Chaney recalls being “a clinical research team of one” back then. Chaney screened and recruited patients, drew blood samples, ensured protocols were approved and followed to a T, hung bags of T cells on IV poles, and monitored patients following their treatment.
Since then, Chaney has amassed a long list of career highlights: seeing and hearing from patients she treated years ago alive and thriving; seeing partnerships with biotech companies yield therapies for the masses much quicker than the Hutch could do independently; seeing the Food and Drug Administration approve cellular-based therapies like those she helps test.
As she describes literal and figurative leaps over the past 14 years, Chaney always comes back to what keeps her grounded: the patients. It’s extremely demanding work, she says. And it’s extremely rewarding.
“I think you have to have a healthy respect for life, and that the cycle of life includes death. I’m here to support the patients I treat wherever they are in that life cycle. I appreciate the partnership with patients who have participated in our research efforts and who have allowed me to be involved in a very significant time in their lives.”
Jake Siegel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Previously, he covered health topics at UW Medicine and technology at Microsoft. He has an M.A. from the Missouri School of Journalism.