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Leiden PhD team in finals international pharmacological competition

A team of five PhD students from Leiden University is in the running for first prize in the Pharmacometrics Skills Competition. In a drug development simulation, they apply their mathematical pharmacological skills to solve clinical problems. On 24 March they will compete in the finals in Orlando, Florida.

The American Society for Clinical Pharmacologists, ASCPT, is hosting the competition for the first time. To compete, teams of PhD students or professionals are asked to perform advanced tasks. The team members from Leiden University have already known each other before the competition. Team member Michiel van Esdonk: ‘We’re all doing PhD research at the division of Systems Biomedicine and Pharmacology at LACDR. We all have a background in mathematical pharmacological modelling. That is rather convenient: the task is all about using mathematical techniques to analyse a complex clinical study.’

A good learning experience

The five PhD students were elated when they were selected for the competition. So far, the team has been working on the different assignments in Leiden. Team member Rob van Wijk: ‘We received only an A4 sheet of paper with limited information and five questions relevant for developing a medicine. We also got a dataset with data from three clinical experiments, which we could analyse with different methods. We started working on the assignment with great enthusiasm, but it turned out to be more complex than we thought. Our supervisors concluded they not only found working with the data a good learning experience for us, but that this was also a great opportunity for us to learn working together in a structured way.’

Skills and cooperation

Van Esdonk: ‘I really like that the competition is international. Professionals and PhD students get the same assignments and we will only find out how other teams handled the assignment on 24 March. For our team, it has been fun to combine the skills of all team members and to let everybody contribute to answering different problems.’ Van Wijk: ‘We all use the same methods, but everybody applies them in his or her own way. For instance, some team members are mostly working on determining the exposure of a medicine after administration, while others focus on the effects of the medicine on the body.’

left to right: Sinziana Cristea, Michiel van Esdonk, Sebastiaan Goulooze, Rob van Wijk

Busy drug competition

After the complex analysis, the second part of the competition will be interpreting the results. During the congress in Orlando, the team will present their findings in a short presentation. Van Esdonk: ‘At Leiden University, we are mainly working on developing models and methods. This competition takes it a step further. For example, we had to compare our medicine with a competing medicine, of which we only had limited information about how it is used. In addition, we had to give advice on which dose of the drug is safe and effective.’

Societal application or scientific innovation?

Van Wijk thinks societal applications and scientific innovations are equally important. ‘They do not exclude each other, they actually need each other. I believe that every scientific innovation can eventually contribute to society. One of the aims of this competition was to train our communication skills, in order to explain our results to those who are not familiar with them, but do have to work with them. Without this, innovation has little impact.’

Van Esdonk: ‘The audience mainly consist of doctors and clinical pharmacologists. Therefore, I think that the competition is convenient to create a certain awareness in modelling and simulating data. Scientists will think better about what kind of analysis to use, in order to develop novel medicines as efficient as possible.’