PhD student wins award for cancer risk tool

A PhD student at the University of Strathclyde has won a major award for developing the first easy-to-use calculator for identifying patients at high risk of head and neck cancer.

Theofano Tikka, a student in Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health and a junior doctor practising in Glasgow, has been awarded the Scottish Cancer Foundation’s £10,000 annual prize for her work in developing the calculator. It proved invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic in assessing patients remotely when they could not be seen in hospital.

The calculator analyses a patient’s risk using 14 common factors and has been proved in studies to have a high predictive ability in identifying those at highest need of rapid diagnosis. During the pandemic, these patients were fast-tracked to be seen in person. ensuing priority for those most in need while taking pressure off outpatient departments.

A total of 41 centres across the UK used the calculator during the pandemic and it continues to be widely used. It has been endorsed for use by the British Association of Otorhinolaryngology - head and neck surgery - the national organisation representing specialists in this field. It has also been incorporated into everyday use for GPs in the referral system in NHS Lothian and has been recommended for use in Canada.

Theofano developed it while working as a registrar at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, as part of her PhD studies at Strathclyde. She plans to use the prize money to develop the calculator further, including the possibility of producing a version that can be used directly by patients.

“It is a great honour receiving this prestigious award and I would like to thank all the collaborators of this work that made it possible,” she said. “The NHS demonstrated its ability to adapt to the difficult challenges imposed by the pandemic by using the calculator in telephone consultations during lockdowns to ensure that patients could continue to get the care they needed.

“With the prize money, I am planning to research how the head and neck cancer risk calculator can be used in clinical practice beyond the pandemic era. I will explore the possibility of its direct use by patients, adjusting it appropriately using language that can be understood by the public, identifying the best way to incorporate the risk calculator in the referral pathways for suspected head and neck cancers.”

The Scottish Cancer Foundation prize for this year had a special focus on the pandemic and was designed to honour an individual or organisation that had made an outstanding contribution to maintaining vital cancer services during the pandemic or their recovery since then.

The Scottish Cancer Foundation’s chair, Professor Bob Steele, said: “In the past our annual award has recognised outstanding cancer research, innovative treatment approaches and effective prevention campaigns but this year we decided the focus had to be related to Covid-19.

“Keeping cancer services running during the pandemic provided medical and nursing teams with the biggest challenge in the history of the NHS. The use of Theofano Tikka’s risk calculator to identify the highest risk patients is a fine example of the kind of work that took place to ensure continuity of care. It is a brilliant idea and one that will help to improve the care of head and neck cancer patients for many years to come. We are very pleased that our annual prize is to be used to fund the further development of this ground-breaking addition to cancer services.”

The £10,000 prize is supported by the Grant Simpson Trust. Theofano will also receive the Evans Forrest Medal, named in recognition of the founders of the Scottish Cancer Foundation.

Theofano was supervised in her project by Professor Anja Lowit and Visiting Professor Dr Kenneth MacKenzie, both of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences & Health, and by Dr Kim Kavanagh, of the University’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics.