Five years in Berlin and counting – reshuffling my research

I started to work in the CSB about 5 years ago. I took over an existing research group, CEHRIS, which provided services to other research groups in our center. Data management, project management and biostatisticians who worked on both clinical and preclinical research where all included in this team. My own research was a bit on the side, including old collaborations with Leiden and a new Ph.D. project with JR.

But then, early summer 2018 things started to change. The generous funding under the IFB scheme ran out, and CSB 3.0 had to switch to a skeleton crew. Now, for most research activities this had no direct impact, as funding for many key projects did not come from the CSB 2.0 grant. However, a lot of services to make our researchers perform at peak capability were hit. this included my team. CEHRIS, the service group ready to help other researchers was no longer.

But I stayed on, and I used the opportunity to focus my efforts on my own interest. I detached myself from projects I inherited but were not so engaged with, and I engaged myself with projects that interested me. This was, of course, a process over many months, starting end 2017. I feel now that it is time to share with you that I have a clear idea of what my new direction is. It boils downs to this:

My stroke research focuses on three projects in which we collect(ed) data ourselves: PROSCIS, BSPATIAL, BELOVE. The data collection in each of these projects is in different phases, and more papers will be coming out of these projects sooner later than later. Next to this, I will also help to analyze and publish data from others – that is after all what epidemiologists do. My methods research remains a bit of a hodgepodge where I still need to find focus and momentum. The problem here is that funding for this type of research has been lacking so far and will always be difficult to find – especially in Germany. But many ideas that come to from stroke projects have ripened into methodology working papers and abstracts, hopefully resulting in fully published papers quite soon. The third pillar is formed by the meta-research activities that I undertake with QUEST. Until now, these activities were a bit of a hobby, and always on the side. That has changed with the funding of SPOKES.

SPOKES is a new project that wants to improve the way we do biomedical research, especially translational research. Just pointing towards the problem (meta-research) or new top-down policy (ivory tower alert) is not enough. There has to be time and money for early and mid-career researchers to chip in as well in the process. SPOKES is going to facilitate that by making both time and money available. This starts with dedicated time and money for myself: I now work one day a week with the QUEST team. I will provide more details on SPOKES in a later post, but for now, I will just acknowledge that looking forward to this project within the framework of the Wellcome Trust Translational Partnership.

So there you have it, the three new pillars of my research activities in a single blog post. I have decided to lose the name CEHRIS to show that the old service focussed research group is no more. I have been struggling with choosing a new name, but in the end, I have settled for the German standard “AG-Siegerink”. Part lack of imagination, part laziness, and part underlining that there are three related but distinct research lines within that research group.

Up to the next 5 years!?

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STEMO, our stroke ambulance, has had a bumpy ride…

STEMO in front of our clinic, source.

Pfew, there has been quite some excitement when it comes to the STEMO, the stroke ambulance in Berlin. The details are too specific -and way too German- for this blog, but the bottomline is this: during our evaluation of the STEMO, we noticed that STEMO was not always used as it should be. And if you do not use a tool like you should, it is hot half as effective. So we keep on trying to improve how STEMO is used in Berlin, even though the evaluation is going on.

We need to take these changes into account, so we wrote a new plan to evaluate STEMO, which was published open access the new BMC journal Neurological Research and Practice. The money to continue the evaluation was secured and we thought we were ready to go. But then reality set in: during budget negotiations a lower committee from the Berlin Senate said simply “NO” to STEMO. A day later however, the Major of Berlin used a “Machtword”, an informal veto to say that STEMO will be kept in the budget in order to finish the formal evaluation.

A true rollercoaster, which will show how directly our research has an impact on the society. The numerous calls, tweets and emails we have received in support of our now 3 STEMO ambulances over last couple of weeks underlines this even more (just the fact that a complete stranger started a petition with all nuances of the case taken into account is just mind boggeling !). But the science has to speak, and we still need to definitively evaluate the effectiveness of STEMO when used like it should be – something we will do over the next months with renewed energy in the whole team.

Auto-immune antibodies and their relevance for stroke patients – a new paper in Stroke

KMfor CVD+mortatily after stroke, stratified to serostatus for the anti-NMDA-R auto-antibody. taken from (doi: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.119.026100)

We recently published one of our projects embedded within the PROSCIS study. This follow-up study that includes 600+ men and women with acute stroke forms the basis of many active projects in the team (1 published, many coming up).

For this paper, PhD candidate PS measured auto-antibodies to the NMDAR receptor. Previous studies suggest that having these antibodies might be a marker, or even induce a kind of neuroprotective effect. That is not what we found: we showed that seropositive patients, especially those with the highest titers have a 3-3.5 fold increase in the risk of having a worse outcome, as well as almost 2-fold increased risk of CVD and death following the initial stroke.

Interesting findings, but some elements in our design do not allow us to draw very strong conclusions. One of them is the uncertainty of the seropositivity status of the patient over time. Are the antibodies actually induced over time? Are they transient? PS has come up with a solid plan to answer some of these questions, which includes measuring the antibodies at multiple time points just after stroke. Now, in PROSCIS we only have one blood sample, so we need to use biosamples from other studies that were designed with multiple blood draws. The team of AM was equally interested in the topic, so we teamed up. I am looking forward to follow-up on the questions that our own research brings up!

The effort was led by PS and most praise should go to her. The paper is published in Stroke, can be found online via pubmed, or via my Mendeley profile (doi: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.119.026100)

Now hiring!

The text below is the English version of the official and very formal German text.

The QUEST center is looking for a project manager for the SPOKES project. SPOKES is part of the Wellcome Trust translational partnership program and aims to “Create Traction and Stimulate Grass-Root Activities to Promote a Culture of Translation Focused on Value”. SPOKES will be looking for grassroots activities from early and mid-career scientist who want to sustainably increase the value of the research in their own field.

The position will be located within the QUEST Center for Transforming Biomedical Research at the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH). The goal of QUEST is to optimize biomedical research in terms of sound scientific methodology, bio-ethics and access to research.

SPOKES is a new program organized by the QUEST Team at the Berlin Institute of Health. SPOKES enables our own researchers at the Charité / BIH to improve the way we do science. Your task is to identify and support these scientists. More specifically, we expect you to:

  • Promote the program within the BIH research community (interviews, newsletters, social media, events, etc)
  • Find the right candidates for this program (recruiting and selection)
  • Organize the logistics and help prepare the content of all our meetings (workshops, progress meetings, symposia, etc)
  • Support the selected researchers in their projects where possible (design, schedule and execute)

Next to this, there is an opportunity to perform some meta-research yourself.

We are looking for somebody with

  • A degree in biomedical research (MD, MSc, PhD or equivalent)
  • Proficiency in both English and German (both minimally C1)
  • Enthusiasm for improving science – if possible demonstrated by previous courses or other activities

Although no formal training as a project manager is required, we are looking for people who have some experience in setting up and running projects of any kind that involve people with different (scientific) backgrounds.

Intrinsic Coagulation Pathway, History of Headache, and Risk of Ischemic Stroke: a story about interacting risk factors

Yup, another paper from the long-standing collaboration with Leiden. this time, it was PhD candidate HvO who came up with the idea to take a look at the risk of stroke in relation to two risk factors that independently increase the risk. So what then is the new part of this paper? It is about the interaction between the two.

Migraine is a known risk factor for ischemic for stroke in young women. Previous work also indicated that increased levels of the intrinsic coagulation proteins are associated with an increase in ischemic stroke risk. Both roughly double the risk. so what does the combination do?

Let us take a look at the results of analyses in the RATIO study. High levels if antigen levels of coagulation factor FXI are associated with a relative risk of 1.7. A history of severe headache doubles the risk of ischemic stroke. so what can we then expect is both risks just added up? Well, we need to take the standard risk that everybody has into account, which is RR of 1. Then we add the added risk in terms of RR based on the two risk factors. For FXI this is (1.7-1=) 0.7. For headache that is 2.0-1=) 1.0. So we would expect a RR of (1+0.7+1.0=) 2.7. However, we found that the women who had both risk factors had a 5-fold increase in risk, more than what can b expected.

For those who are keeping track, I am of course talking about additive interaction or sometimes referred to biological interaction. this concept is quite different from statistical interaction which – for me – is a useless thing to look at when your underlying research is of a causal nature.

What does this mean? you could interpret this that some women only develop the disease because they are exposed to both risk factors. IN some way, that combination becomes a third ‘risk entity’ that increases the risk in the population. How that works on a biochemical level cannot be answered with this epidemiological study, but some hints from the literature do exist as we discuss in our paper

Of course, some notes have to be taken into account. In addition to the standard limitations of case-control studies, two things stand out: because we study the combination of two risk factors, the precision of our study is relatively low. But then again, what other study is going to answer this question? The absolute risk of ischemic stroke is too low in the general population to perform prospective studies, even when enriched with loads of migraineurs. Another thing that is suboptimal is that the questionnaires used do not allow to conclude that the women who report severe headache actually have a migraine. Our assumption is that many -if not most- do. even though mixing ‘normal’ headaches with migraines in one group would only lead to an underestimation of the true effect of migraine on stroke risk, but still, we have to be careful and therefore stick to the term ‘headache’.

HvO took the lead in this project, which included two short visits to Berlin supported by our Virchow scholarship. The paper has been published in Stroke and can be seen ahead of print on their website.

Migraine and venous thrombosis: Another important piece of the puzzle

Asking the right question is arguably the hardest thing to do in science, or at least in epidemiology. The question that you want to answer dictates the study design, the data that you collect and the type of analyses you are going to use. Often, especially in causal research, this means scrutinizing how you should frame your exposure/outcome relationship. After all, there needs to be positivity and consistency which you can only ensure through “the right research question”. Of note, the third assumption for causal inference i.e. exchangeability, conditional or not, is something you can pursue through study design and analyses. But there is a third part of an epidemiological research question that makes all the difference: the domain of the study, as is so elegantly displayed by the cartoon of Todays Random Medical News or the twitter hash-tag “#inmice“.

The domain is the type of individuals to which the answer has relevance. Often, the domain has a one-to-one relationship with the study population. This is not always the case, as sometimes the domain is broader than the study population at hand. A strong example is that you could use young male infants to have a good estimation of the genetic distribution of genotypes in a case-control study for venous thrombosis in middle-aged women. I am not saying that that case-control study has the best design, but there is a case to be made, especially if we can safely assume that the genotype distribution is not sex chromosome dependent or has shifted through the different generations.

The domain of the study is not only important if you want to know to whom the results of your study actually are relevant, but also if you want to compare the results of different studies. (as a side note, keep in mind the absolute risks of the outcome that come with the different domains: they highly affect how you should interpret the relative risks)

Sometimes, studies look like they fully contradict with each other. One study says yes, the other says no. What to conclude? Who knows! But are you sure both studies actually they answer the same question? Comparing the way the exposure and the outcome are measured in the two studies is one thing – an important thing at that – but it is not the only thing. You should also make sure that you take potential differences and similarities between the domains of the studies into account.

This brings us to the paper by KA and myself that just got published in the latest volume of RPTH. In fact, it is a commentary written after we have reviewed a paper by Folsom et al. that did a very thorough job at analyzing the role between migraine and venous thrombosis in the elderly. They convincingly show that there is no relationship, completely in apparent contrast to previous papers. So we asked ourselves: “Why did the study by Folsom et al report findings in apparent contrast to previous studies?  “

There is, of course, the possibility f just chance. But next to this, we should consider that the analyses by Folsom look at the long term risk in an older population. The other papers looked at at a shorter term, and in a younger population in which migraine is most relevant as migraine often goes away with increasing age. KA and I argue that both studies might just be right, even though they are in apparent contradiction. Why should it not be possible to have a transient increase in thrombosis risk when migraines are most frequent and severe, and that there is no long term increase in risk in the elderly, an age when most migraineurs report less frequent and severe attacks?

The lesson of today: do not look only at the exposure of the outcome when you want to bring the evidence of two or more studies into one coherent theory. Look at the domain as well, as you might just dismiss an important piece of the puzzle.

medRxiv: the pre-print server for medicine

Pre-print servers are a place to place share your academic work before actual peer review and subsequent publication. They are not so new completely new to academia, as many different disciplines have adopted pre-print servers to quickly share ideas and keep the academic discussion going. Many have praised the informal peer-review that you get when you post on pre-print servers, but I primarily like the speed.

But medicine is not one of those disciplines. Up until recently, the medical community had to use bioRxiv, a pre-print server for biology. Very unsatisfactory; as the fields are just too far apart, and the idiosyncrasies of the medical sciences bring some extra requirements. (e.g. ethical approval, trial registration, etc.). So here comes medRxiv, from the makers of bioRxiv with support of the BMJ. Let’s take a moment to listen to the people behind medRxiv to explain the concept themselves.

source: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/about-medrxiv

I love it. I am not sure whether it will be adopted by the community at the same space as some other disciplines have, but doing nothing will never be part of the way forward. Critical participation is the only way.

So, that’s what I did. I wanted to be part of this new thing and convinced with co-authors for using the pre-print concept. I focussed my efforts on the paper in which we describe the BeLOVe study. This is a big cohort we are currently setting up, and in a way, is therefore well-suited for pre-print servers. The pre-print servers allow us to describe without restrictions in word count, appendices or tables and graphs to describe what we want to the level of detail of our choice. The speediness is also welcome, as we want to inform the world on our effects while we are still in the pilot phase and are still able to tweak the design here or there. And that is actually what happened: after being online for a couple of days, our pre-print already sparked some ideas by others.

Now we have to see how much effort it took us, and how much benefit w drew from this extra effort. It would be great if all journals would permit pre-prints (not all do…) and if submitting to a journal would just be a “one click’ kind of effort after jumping through the hoops for the medRxiv.

This is not my first pre-print. For example, the paper that I co-authored on the timely publication of trials from Germany was posted on biorXiv. But being the guy who actually uploads the manuscript is a whole different feeling.