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A PhD candidate from Leiden in Milan

On 14 January 2019, Shermarke Hassan boarded a plane to Milan. This young PhD candidate was going to spend the next three months doing research at the ‘Angelo Bianchi Bonomi Hemophilia and Thrombosis Centre,’ one of the world’s biggest research and treatment centres for haemophilia, a rare condition that affects the blood’s ability to clot.

Haemophilia is caused by a lack of clotting factor VIII (haemophilia A) or clotting factor IX (haemophilia B), two proteins in the blood that play a part in the clotting process. Without treatment, most patients bleed to death at a young age. Nowadays, the disorder can be treated by injecting the missing clotting factor into the blood.

Unfortunately, about a third of all patients with haemophilia A develop an immune reaction to factor VIII, which means this form of treatment no longer works properly. The aim of Shermarke’s stay in Milan was to develop a statistical model that can predict whether this immune reaction will occur.

Shermarke at his desk at the institute

Big data

During his stay, Shermarke was given access to a large set of clinical data. He used this data to test whether a previously developed prediction model was effective. As expected, it proved not to be precise enough, so Shermarke and his colleagues developed a new statistical model. They hoped that, with a limited set of parameters – such as genetic factors and a number of newly discovered biomarkers – they would be able to develop a better model.

Next step

The new model did perform better than the older one, but Shermarke also concluded that it was not precise enough at detecting high-risk patients. However, it was very effective in discovering patients at low risk of an immune response. This is a good pointer for further research. It is very important to know which patients can be treated safely with factor VIII.

‘This experience has greatly benefitted my knowledge of the subject’

Back in the Netherlands

Shermarke is currently hard at work on an article on his research, and the first results will be presented at a conference in a few months’ time. In his final report he writes: ‘In this project, I used a lot of statistical techniques of which I had very little prior experience. This experience has greatly benefitted my knowledge of the subject. It has also benefitted my personal development. Pitching the project to the Italian research group, arranging the funding and the stay abroad itself have all helped me become more independent and assertive in my work.’

Are you, like Shermarke, a PhD candidate at Leiden University? One way in which the LUF supports young researchers is with grants for study abroad. For more information see this page

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