How can you get and keep young doctors interested in research? Lung specialist and researcher Lizza Hendriks wants to look into this, now that she has joined De Jonge Akademie as the third Maastricht member. “Many doctors contribute towards research, but few actually set up their own research.”
De Jonge Akademie – part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen, KNAW) – is a platform of young, talented researchers who cherish a broad interest in science and policies. At the end of November 2020, they decided to support the new initiative of ‘recognition and appreciation’ at Dutch universities. Hendriks especially wants to focus on career policies for doctor/researchers.
“Work in the outpatient’s clinic always takes precedence,” says Hendriks. “Then you have your teaching task. Research is often something you do on the side. I want to show that it is fun. I want to find best practices and from there draw up a plan to create more space for research.”
She herself feels that it is important to have a good mentor. “Even when I was still studying, I wanted to do research. And that was what I did, but my main supervisor didn’t have much time for me and I hadn’t the courage to say something about that. I stopped and consciously did my specialisation at a peripheral hospital, as I didn’t want anything to do with research for a while. After a time, the itch returned, mainly because another doctor/researcher was very enthusiastic. Supervisors need to realise that they have an exemplary role and need to take young people along in research. Often, things don’t work out in research. The setup doesn’t seem to work, a grant application is turned down. That is why it is so important to keep that enthusiasm alive. This requires time and attention.”
Hendriks feels that it is important that doctors carry out research. “We are building a bridge between the lab and what happens in practice. We see the problems, and when we make our way towards the lab, we can look for solutions together with the people there.”
In addition to her membership, which will last five years, Hendriks will be busy with her own research. She is trying to predict which lung cancer patients are likely to have the cancer spread to the brain. “The present prediction model is unfortunately not good enough. It appears that cells in the primary tumour secrete material that prepares other organs for metastasizing. We think that those metastases are already present, at a microscopic level, and is preparing the surroundings for further growth.”
Which organs are affected, differs for each cancer. In the case of lung cancer, it is often the brain. “That cannot always be seen on an MRI scan. Of the patients with a ‘clear’ MRI, 20 per cent has metastasis in the brain. With my research, using advanced imaging techniques (called radiomics, ed.), I hope to be able to predict who will eventually develop metastasis.”
It is an outlook that will have a profound influence on the quality of life. “It frightens people. They wonder if their personality will change, or whether they will remain legally capable.” Preventative radiation might be helpful. “We then subject the entire brain to a low dose of radiation. This also has disadvantages. Some people have memory and concentration problems afterwards. At the moment, we cannot properly predict who will suffer such neurocognitive problems, and research is also being carried out into this. I hope that we will be able to develop a personalised therapy, with optimal (preventive) treatment of metastasis in the brain, without neurocognitive side effect.”