Clinical trials manager honored for collaborative spirit

January 10, 2023
portrait of a smiling woman with people working on computers behind her
Working with doctors and patients is the best part of her job, said clinical trials manager Shanta Salzer. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Behind every triumphant announcement of progress in the fight against cancer, there are scores of unseen teams working every day to solidify our knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.

At MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, one of those teams is the Clinical Trials Office, 70 employees strong, which focuses on maintaining a well-rounded offering of clinical trials and keeping those clinical trials on track so that the gathered data is useful.

And one of the employees in the Clinical Trials Office, who exemplifies what the office is all about, is Shanta Salzer, a program manager who was recently honored with an MUSC President’s Values in Action Award for personifying the MUSC value of collaboration.

Salzer celebrates 19 years with MUSC in February, nearly all of them spent with the Hollings Clinical Trials Office. It’s a job that she loves because of how she can help work toward cures for cancer. But it’s also, she notes, a job that most people don’t know much about.

“I kind of got into research because my sister was in research work. It’s an industry that you just hear about – it’s not something where everyone knows what we do,” she said.

In fact, it’s an opportunity to help patients and to advance cancer research without needing a background in medicine or laboratory science – people in her office studied everything from business to nutrition, Salzer said.

Shanta Salzer at the Values in Action Award ceremony. Behind her are, from left, MUSC first lady Kathy Cole, MUSC president Dr. David Cole, Salzer's daughter, Gabrielle, and her sister, Quyn Horner. The Clinical Trials Office staff kept the award a surprise, telling her the staff needed to attend a presentation, and Salzer's daughter told her she was there for a college class. Photo by Sarah Pack

Salzer started in an entry-level data management position and worked her way up to program manager, overseeing the malignant hematology and pediatrics staff in the Clinical Trials Office.

“I manage the team itself, but as we have ebbs and flows in our resources and people, I always step into clinic when needed. And that’s one of my favorite parts – being with the physicians and the patients,” she said.

Study coordinators work with patients, determining who is eligible for trials and then enrolling those who are interested. They ensure that patients are getting the additional testing that’s part of the trials, and they serve as points of contact.

“The patients, they’re at the worst time of their lives, so we try to make it as easy as possible. And even though we’re not medical, we’re usually the first person that they call because we’re the easiest to get ahold of because we’re the ones by the desk,” Salzer explained. “So it's really a matter of, ‘OK, I may not be able to help you, but let me find the person who can.’ I love working with the patients, and when it goes well, you get excited; you get invested in their care.”

Now, as a manager, Salzer helps to ensure that Hollings has a broad portfolio of clinical trials available covering different cancer types and stages. She works with the physicians and the trial sponsors, which could be a pharmaceutical company, another university or a cancer research coalition, to ensure that the trials stay on track. Her co-workers in the Clinical Trials Office and the physicians she works with praised her as a fair and kind mentor; compassionate, consistent and reliable worker; unifying leader; and thoughtful problem solver.

Tricia Bentz, administrative director of the Clinical Trials Office, said that Salzer has the “spark and energy” that makes great things happen.

group photo 
Members of the Clinical Trials Office and MUSC president Dr. David Cole with Shanta Salzer. Photo by Sarah Pack

Clinical trials are hugely important for discovering cures. They help researchers to compare potential new treatments with existing treatments, called standard of care, to see if the new treatments are more effective or have fewer side effects.

Yet some are still skeptical of trials because of past abuses. The infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which treatment was withheld from Black men with syphilis, continued into the 1970s. It’s important to know there are now strict ethical guidelines in place for conducting trials, Salzer said. Institutional review boards review research proposals with an eye toward protecting the people who agree to participate, and trial participants provide consent after getting information about the trial and the types of procedures that will be done.

Further, researchers don’t jump straight into large trials with hundreds of participants. For example, in a drug trial, extensive research, often taking years, has happened in a lab to test how cells react to a new drug compound. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviews this data to ensure that phase 1 trials, the first trials that involve people, meet rigorous safety measures. Phase 1 trials involve a very small number of people, some of whom might even be healthy, just to test the safety of the proposed drug and assess potential side effects.

Phase 2 clinical trials are when researchers start to look at whether the drug or treatment works the way they hope, and phase 3 clinical trials compare the new treatment with the standard of care. Each phase involves larger and larger groups of people.

At Hollings, clinical trials offer hope to people with cancer. Those who participate in clinical trials can get access to newer treatments or procedures before they’re approved and widely available. But even if the trial doesn’t personally benefit them, trial participants are often motivated to add to scientific knowledge and help the cancer patients who will come after them.

“That’s the most important thing, I think, is making sure that we keep getting better so hopefully one day, we can cure it,” Salzer said.