An EPND interview with Marianna Rizzo and Audrey Hermans

09/30/2022

Our partners are the powerhouse of EPND. From professors to PhD students, Chief Medical Officers to data engineers, EPND brings together experts working in a wide range of public and private sector organisations, including universities, pharmaceutical companies, patient organisations, medicines regulators, and SMEs.

In our latest EPND interview, we are delighted to introduce two researchers who are just starting out on their PhD journeys. Marianna and Audrey joined EPND this summer, and will be working with project partners at Maastricht University and at the Dutch Medicines Evaluation Board.

We asked Marianna and Audrey about their career paths, what they most enjoy about research, and their work in EPND. Read on to find out more!

You are both doing your PhDs in the Netherlands, but in different areas and institutions. Could you tell us about your career path to date?

Marianna: I come from Italy, where I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in cognitive psychology and psychobiology, and then a research-oriented Master’s degree in cognitive neuroscience and clinical neuropsychology at the University of Padova. During those years, I was able to further build up my research skills through different internships. I carried out the last one at the Radboud University in Nijmegen (the Netherlands), where I also completed my Master’s thesis on the relationship between sleep, cognition, and the anatomical structure of the brain in older adults. My strong interest in research and in age-related neurological diseases motivated me to continue on to do a PhD. In May, I started my PhD at Maastricht University, working with Stephanie Vos and Pieter Jelle Visser in the Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology.

Audrey: Coincidentally, I am originally from Maastricht! I studied science and innovation management as an undergraduate, at Utrecht University. This introduced me to the world of innovation in healthcare, and the processes that enable discoveries to progress from designs on paper, to products for patients. I decided to continue my studies with a Master’s degree at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, which was on management policy, analysis and entrepreneurship in the health and life sciences. During my Master’s, I worked at the Dutch Medicines Evaluation Board (known as CBG-MEB). This internship was focused on biomarkers and companion diagnostics for oncology. I have returned to CBG-MEB for my PhD, which is supervised by Marjon Pasmooij, Viktoriia Starokozhko and Peter Mol, who is affiliated with Groningen University.

You each work on very different areas of research. Could you tell us a bit more about the type of research you are working on, and how it relates to EPND?

Marianna: My PhD is focused on identifying biomarkers that could improve the diagnosis, treatment and trial design for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). A biomarker is a measure that informs on biological processes that are happening in the body or brain. For AD, there are some corroborated biomarkers, but these do not currently fully catch the biological complexity of the disease. So, my research is aimed at discovering and validating biomarkers that could help identify patients at the early stages of the disease, and stratify them possibly based on the underlying biological patterns. This can eventually inform trial design and treatment development.

For this, I work within EPND. I am mainly involved in the cohort interactions work package, where I deal with the AD cohorts and support integration of the AD data and samples into EPND. In general, this entails interacting with the cohort leads, as well as other work packages in EPND. For example, at the moment I am reaching out to cohort leads to initiate onboarding to EPND. I am also collaborating with laboratory experts in EPND to define the variables that are needed to answer different research questions, as well as working with IT specialists and legal teams on the platform data hosting and data privacy aspects.

Audrey: By studying things that have happened in the past, you can learn for the future. At the start of my PhD, I will be looking at policy documents such as scientific advices from the European Medicines Agency (or EMA), to understand the role of biomarkers in European qualification processes, and their use in dossiers supporting marketing authorisation of novel products. Biomarker qualification means that the EMA has certified that the biomarker is acceptable for a specific use in drug research and development. So we will not only look at qualified biomarkers, but also at biomarkers mentioned in scientific advices.

One of the aims of EPND is to support the regulatory approval of biomarkers for neurodegenerative diseases. By analysing EMA policy documents, and understanding points of discussion in committees, I hope to pinpoint potential obstacles that could hinder biomarker qualification, and create guidance to support developers. For example, if you see that committees always ask for a particular type of evidence, this can help organisations prepare better. The work we are doing will hopefully improve future applications for biomarker qualification, so the process is faster, smoother and more successful.

What do you enjoy most about research?

Marianna:For a long time now, I have been intrigued by how devastating and common neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease are, but how little is known about them. This is what keeps me engaged with research: it is inspiring to gain the tools to investigate a disease in such a way that your work can contribute to improving people’s health. The analytical aspects involved in research also resonate with my mindset. I also really enjoy the networking aspects of research: it is great to learn and share with others, and look across disciplines. This is a big feature in EPND: seemingly distant disciplines are joining together to understand neurodegeneration better and to find solutions to accelerate research.

Audrey: A big motivator for me is the research in itself: trying to figure out what people want to know, and then identifying how to answer those questions. And then you move on to collecting the data; after which you dive into the data to understand it. You trawl through all the information you find and figure out what can usefully answer the research question, that can also lead to surprising findings. What I like most about my work is that I am contributing not just to theoretical learnings, but also helping to make practical advances. Through my research I am developing recommendations on policy, and identifying what is needed to improve research, so we can indirectly also improve patient care.

You are both at the start of your PhD journeys. What do you hope to achieve over the next few years?

Marianna: Since I have only just started my PhD, my primary aim is to do some solid scientific work. As mentioned earlier, I hope to produce something that is valuable for the neurodegenerative disease community – both researchers and, eventually, patients. I also hope to engage in long-term scientific collaborations, which I believe boost the potential of the initiatives of single researchers, as well as create a sense of community. Furthermore, it would be fantastic if we, as EPND, manage to develop a platform that will last long beyond the end of the 5-year IMI funding period. This could make a substantial impact, as data sharing is a huge enabler for finding new diagnostics and treatments.

Audrey: I totally agree with Marianna! For the moment, there aren’t many effective treatments or very accurate diagnostics for neurodegenerative diseases. I hope we can help meet those needs in EPND; and I hope we can contribute towards progress, and make people aware of what possibilities there are, when we work together to improve the lives of people with neurodegenerative diseases.

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