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Bringing order into the jungle of small-scale studies

Bringing order into the jungle of small-scale studies

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Molecular biologist Manon van Engeland would like to set up a study to collect all biomarker cancer research projects in a database. Why? To enable patients to benefit as quickly as possible from the detection of the early signs of cancer.

Van Engeland, who became scientific director of the research school GROW six months ago, often asks PhD candidates the same question during the ceremony in the auditorium. What follow-up study would you do, if you had loads of money? “Some are taken aback by this, they have never thought about this, others come up with surprising experiments. Of course it says something if you have or haven't thought about this.”

She herself is “too impatient” for fundamental research, she says, her heart lies in applications, in the question: how can you ensure that the patient benefits as quickly as possible from the findings in the lab? This often leaves a lot to be desired, says Van Engeland, certainly in the area of her own specialisation: biomarkers for cancer. These are indications, such as changes in the DNA, which can show tumour growth, but also the prognosis of the patient and predict the response to therapies.

“A lot of research into biomarkers is being carried out, and all those studies yield a lot of publications, but few scientists take the trouble to repeat this research. At the same time, this is the very essence of science: check and replicate. It is not sexy enough. Many researchers would prefer to discover something new rather than shed new light on existing studies.”

Biomarkers have been giving rise to high expectations for many years, says Van Engeland. “There have been some promising findings, but these are rarely replicated and after publication, most remain on the shelf. Over the total number, less than 1 per cent of the biomarkers end up in patient care.”

In order to prevent this research waste, Van Engeland would like to set up a database, in which researchers can see exactly what has already been researched, what the results were, how it was set up and what happened with it? An ‘atlas’ such as this would bring order to the jungle of small-scale studies, would identify promising biomarkers, and hopefully stimulate replication research. As soon as the same biomarker has been looked at closely several times, financial backers become interested. These are companies that will develop the marker further for use in clinics.”

A modest start has already been made. Together with a number of members from her research group, Van Engeland has received 4,500 euro from SWOL to create a short video and a website. With colleagues from SBE and Law, she is now looking for a suitable business model; subsidizers want to have an idea of the long-term feasibility of such a database.

She doesn't need to think long about a best practise. A biomarker for intestinal cancer has been developed at the UM, which has been included in an intestinal cancer test, says Van Engeland. “This test has already been used to screen 800 thousand people in the US in 2018 and has most likely detected intestinal cancers at an early stage. Maybe a good thing to say: the test is not meant to replace the present diagnostic instruments that doctors have. It is an addition.”



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