Tuesday, July 8, 2014

UAB Cancer Center Spotlight: Carla Perna

Carla Perna...Expert of all things UAB Clinical Trials 

UAB’s Carla Perna will be the first to tell you about the amount of effort behind clinical trials. She is program director of clinical trials regulatory affairs at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. She handles the administrative side of clinical trials conducted here at the Cancer Center.  She has been in cancer research for 10 years and at UAB for five years.  In her words, she has the experience of working with passionate people where the research and progress is phenomenal. 

In Mrs. Perna’s free time you can find her spending time with her husband and best friend of 17 years, Dr. Sam Perna. Their hobbies include photography, nature walks, and cherishing the time they get to spend with their two sons Zach, 30, and Nathan, 26.

Describe your job, what does a typical day look like?
“If you plan it, it isn’t gonna happen. Things happen in clinical trials and they have got to be handled ASAP, usually. They move very fast. There might be something that happens with a patient and they need approval. A typical day involves a lot of meetings. I meet with my team a lot. I interact with the sponsors. Right now, we have 22 trials we are trying to activate. Our activation rule right now is 90 days from the time that we start the protocol, which is very tough at an academic center because you rely a lot on other departments. Keeping things going, setting out fires, that’s what I’m doing most of the day.”

What are some of the greatest challenges in your job?
“Prioritizing. It is often hard to complete something. You are always juggling. Nothing is ever done. One reason I love my job is that I always have something to do. Getting adjusted to the fact that sometimes you have to put something to the side to move to another is sometimes difficult.  I actually like it. I have a lot of things juggling at one time. And I think that’s the challenge for me is to not let something fall off, to know everything that is going on and to know when it needs to get handled because it is so much, but having the team I have is essential for success. They are excellent.”

How can you promote clinical trials in a positive way?
“Doing what I do really gives it a positive spin. I come to work every day and I have a purpose. That’s one of the reasons I love my job. I talk about what I do to a lot of people. They’ll say ‘what do you do’ and I say ‘clinical trials’ and they automatically think I’m a nurse. And many people do not realize all the work it that goes into getting a clinical trial. Even up from the pharmaceutical company developing a drug, to getting it to the point of even having a trial in humans.”

What inspires you about those participating in clinical trials?
“Phase I studies are fascinating because it’s the first in human trials. And those patients… I think all of our patients are heroes, but those phase I patients, to be the first willing to try something and know that they are testing toxicities and safeties. They already have a horrible disease and they already feel bad and they are willing to give something back to science I think is very admirable and very heroic to do that.”

What would you tell people who are considering participating in a clinical trial?
“You need to talk to your family. You need to weigh all your options. I don’t think that clinical trials are for everybody. I think that they need support. It is a big step to do a clinical trial. There are a lot of steps to it. These people are sick and they have to follow a regimen, steady visits. I would love to say I encourage everyone to do it but I don’t think it is for everyone because if you can’t be compliant it messes up the data. The support of the family is huge. I would say absolutely consider it.  But make sure you know all of your options. If you have family support and weigh all your options that is when you consider it.”

What advice would you give to people who are interested in a career in regulatory affairs?
“I think it is a field that will continue to grow. I think it is important to the future of our health care. And it is fascinating. One of the best things is to get the results of what your clinical trial has done. Especially when it is a drug that has proven to be effective and to know you were a part of that.”

How has experience been at UAB?
“Fantastic. I have been doing cancer research for 10 years. I’ve been here five of those years. The first five was at a smaller hospital. It was a great stepping stone to coming here. I think it would have been harder had I not had the experience at a lower level and a lower volume. The volume here is massive. You know we are one of 40 NCI-designated cancer centers in the United States, I mean to be part of that is a big deal. The people that do research here are just passionate about what they do. I think that that is what it takes if you are going to do research. No matter if you’re doing bench site or you’re doing therapeutic, you have to be passionate because it is tedious.”

How did you get involved in research?
“I just fell into research. Someone said hey I think you’d love research. And I did it. It wasn’t a goal of mine or anything. I was like everybody else. I never thought how a drug got to the pharmacy: all the work that went on to get it there, all the people that went into clinical trials to know that it would work and even be safe. People go day to day and don’t even think about it.”

Anything else you would like to add?
“I feel very proud to work at UAB. It is a leading academic site and the research is phenomenal. When I’m in another state and I tell them I work at UAB I expect them to know where I’m talking about. And if they don’t it’s a little insulting (she laughs).
I hope to retire here. I love it.”

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