29 May 2020

The APPROACH researchers: Interview series “Behind-the-scenes”, part 2

In order to showcase the variety of work we do in APPROACH, the following news items are dedicated to several of our researchers. They share the work they do for the project, what excites and challenges them the most, especially at times of the present COVID-19 pandemic, and how they see the impact of our project for the wider field of Osteoarthritis research.

Sjouke Dekker is a member of the Patient Council (PC) appointed for APPROACH and is responsible to represent osteoarthritis (OA) patients in the project in the best way possible. His goal is to give them a human face and voice to all researchers and the general public. Moreover, Sjouke helps to create optimal conditions for the participants involved in the study. 

What do you enjoy the most about your work on the project?
I enjoy the cooperation with other members of the PC. These are people with different backgrounds and nationalities and this makes our work very interesting and our contribution enriching. I also enjoy the cooperation with researchers. 

What is challenging about your work?
I am a member of the team preparing the participant newsletters. The goal of these newsletters is to provide study participants and project members with updates on the progress of the APPROACH study. Co-editing the participant newsletters can be a challenge if one wants to make them interesting for the study participants and at the same time ensure they are easy to read while covering all aspects of the study. The challenge is also to make sure that everyone is on board consistently until the very end of the trial.

What do you think is the importance of the project for the wider field of OA research?
I think besides the medical results in treatment or developing new medicines, it is crucial to have awareness of the importance of real patient involvement in this type of research. We as a PC have contributed in a very good way to achieve this goal. For instance, Jane Tyler, our chairperson, is currently writing an article based on our experience in APPROACH with patient involvement which will be published in a journal. Furthermore, the feedback we receive form researchers on our involvement in the project is always very positive, which we consider one of our successes. 

How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your work?
Since I am retired and my only work involves the membership of the PC for APPROACH, I do miss the chance to meet my colleagues – members of the PC and researchers, at the annual meeting this year. This meeting was supposed to take place in September but, due to restrictions surrounding the current crisis, it had to be moved online. However, I am convinced that there is no better way than meeting each other face-to-face, especially for us as volunteers and members of the PC. 

How have you adapted to the new circumstances created by the pandemic?
Members of the PC call and communicate by email and also, since our last annual meeting in Spain last year, we have frequent contact by Whatsapp where we share photos from our daily activities and experiences from our personal life.  

Anne-Christine “Anne” Bay-Jensen works at Nordic Bioscience in Denmark and is one of the leader for the Biomarker work package within APPROACH, focused on biochemical markers, proteomics, metabolomics and lipidomics analyses. These analyses seek to identify and validate novel and current for support of drug development. At Nordic, Anne is involved in biomarker development and the measurement of several of the biochemical markers in the APPROACH samples in the CAP-certified lab. Several of the biomarkers have been developed by Nordic Bioscience, but also commercially available.

Anne enjoys her work on APPROACH. She shares: “I mostly appreciate the communication I have with other work package leaders and all partners in general, as well as exchanging ideas on how to develop new biomarkers and discussing novel diagnostic concepts. This is a creative process in which you learn things that you haven’t thought of before. It is exciting to see the development of the project as we progress with our work and to learn about new technologies that I didn’t know anything about before.”

Nevertheless, sometimes it can be a challenge to coordinate the work of all partners within the work package and keep track of what has been done, Anne continues. Also, we need to make sure that data is used appropriately. This is, of course, a common challenge for many projects.  

On the significance of the work done in APPROACH for the wider field of Osteoarthritis research Anne elaborates: “From the perspective of the biomarkers work package, it is important that we first generate new data to enable better understanding of the disease and, second, that we do so through biomarker measurements but also through proteomics, metabolomics and lipidomics data. Compiling this data together allows us to get a better understanding about how different pathways play together and develop a platform to create a new biomarker and get the most out of this manifold data output.”

Fortunately, Anne-’s work on the APPROACH project has not been impacted greatly by the COVID-19 pandemic. She shares that she managed to adjust fast to the new situation and working at home. Moreover, lab technicians at Nordic Bioscience have still been at work, albeit part-time, and were thus able to complete measurements for the project and the customers they have. Moreover, Anne and her colleagues had to adjust their working schedules with some people working different days at the office in irregular hours. Finally, she shares:  “We don’t meet face-to-face now and this is a challenge in science, since sometimes science is about coming together and talking. I don’t think you can mitigate personal contact with online meetings, because, ultimately, we need to meet informally as well if we want to generate new ideas faster.”