MAASTRICHT. A group of ten honours students from the Faculty of Health, Medicine & Life Sciences (FHML) was selected to hold a poster presentation at the renowned British Society for Immunology Congress. And no, that is not common. Normally, only researchers – not seldomly from Harvard, Oxford and Berkeley – are given that privilege.
The UM bachelor’s students themselves were kind of thunderstruck when the British society approved their application. In December, four of them did the presentation in Liverpool. “It was very exciting,” says Mariam Gobianidze (20, Georgia) “to present our data to all these researchers who have far more expertise than we. Yet, we were not anxious, because we have been working on this topic for a long time and are quite confident.”
But why were the bachelor’s students invited? As part of the honours programme, the students dived into the topic of autoimmune diseases. “That is when the immune system attacks not only foreign invaders, but also your own body,” says Nile Verleur (22, United States), “We looked at the most prevalent disorders: Rheumatoid Arthritis, Type I Diabetes, Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease, Ulcerative Colitis, and Pernicious Anaemia.”
They often occur together, but why is that? The students began with a systematic literature research, interviewed clinicians and discovered a knowledge gap: most of them were not even aware of this so-called comorbidity. “The view of these clinicians is restricted to the disease they are specialised in,” says Gobianidze.
According to the students, the comorbidity is not strange at all because the overall immune system fails. They analysed a database of 85 thousand patients seen by GPs in Southern Netherlands; 6 percent of them had at least one autoimmune disease and 0.34 percent was diagnosed with two or more. “That is 400 out of 100 thousand people,” says Verleur, “which means that the risk of developing autoimmune comorbidities is considerable.”
Another finding was that especially those suffering from rheumatism run a high risk of developing a second autoimmune disease. Also, females are more likely to develop these diseases.
Now the students are busy writing a scientific article about their research. Verleur: “That is quite hard with ten authors.” But the good news is that they met the chief editor of the prestigious Journal of Clinical & Experimental Immunology. Gobianidze: “Accidentally, she was Dutch, from Utrecht. She offered to provide us with feedback if we sent her our article. Really great!”