Ex-Worthing man recounts key role in saving lives of infamous drugs trial volunteers

Dr Ganesh Suntharalingam, who played a key role in the infamous TGN142 drugs trial.  Picture by Ian Bartlett. SUS-170228-142620001
Dr Ganesh Suntharalingam, who played a key role in the infamous TGN142 drugs trial. Picture by Ian Bartlett. SUS-170228-142620001

When a now infamous drug trial went catastrophically wrong, the lives of six critically-ill patients were in the hands of a former Worthing man and his team.

NHS doctors were called into action when volunteers suffered a severe reaction to a new leukaemia drug being trialled in humans for the first time.

The 2006 trial, run by private firm Parexel at Northwick Park Hospital, in London, made global headlines.

Intensive care consultant Ganesh Suntharalingam, who lived in Worthing between the ages of 11 and 18, recounted his role as part of a BBC documentary last week.

In an interview with the Herald, he said: “I have had other things, like a fire in the hospital but this was definitely the biggest and most unusual challenge.

“I went into medicine because I knew there was lots of variety and challenges but I didn’t expect it to be quite on that scale.”

The Herald's tribute to Ganesh's father in 2014

The Herald's tribute to Ganesh's father in 2014

The hospital’s intensive care team took over around 14 hours after the volunteers were given the TGN1412 drug.

By then, the worst-affected volunteer had advanced multi-organ failure and the other five were rapidly deteriorating.

A makeshift extension to the intensive care unit had to be set-up in the adjacent recovery area because the unit was full.

Ganesh, who was off-duty at the time, soon became involved and discussed an emergency plan over the phone with a colleague.

The unknowns of the drug created significant issues – but the team believed the volunteers were suffering from a ‘cytokine storm’, an unintended dramatic release of inflammatory biological signals in response to an attempted treatment drug.

But they would face an anxious wait before they could tell if the treatment would improve their condition or make it worse.

Ganesh said: “It was obviously a period of anxiety because the patients remained very unstable and because the drug had never been given to humans we didn’t know how long it would last or how severe it would get. It was a drug we couldn’t predict the effect of.”

“When they began to turn a corner on the third morning, it was a big relief. It seemed to change in all of them pretty much at the same time, like a switch going off.

“We still had to be sure we weren’t missing anything because they were still very ill.”

The doctor credits his parents for inspiring him to ‘make a difference’ and to go into medicine.

His father, known as ‘Sunny Lingam’ because of his cheerful personality, was credited with transforming elderly care at Worthing and Southlands hospitals. He died in 2014 and the Herald carried a tribute. Ganesh’s mother, Devi, still lives in Worthing.

“I grew up seeing how passionate he was about medicine and both my parents were creative individuals.

“My mother has enjoyed developing her painting and collage in recent years and we as children have inherited from both of them in terms of wanting to make a difference, innovate and do new things.

Relive the full tale by watching ‘The Drugs Trial: Emergency at the Hospital’ here.

Ganesh said the documentary inevitably focused on a few individuals but he stressed he was part of a large team.

The case led to a number of changes in the way trials were operated.

Ganesh said: “Every treatment we gave to the six patients was based on clinical trials – and the volunteers themselves want trials like these to continue to and to be done safely – which is why they were very generous in allowing the information about what happened to them to be used for the programme and scientific presentations.”