More than a two-week secondment (or the perks of being an IDEAS Researcher: part 5)


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The Mathematical Bridge not far away from my room in Cambridge

Now that it has been a year since each research project was initiated, there have been plenty of episodes to look back. We 14 early stage researchers (ESRs) have worked closely and become great friends. As you probably knew from our previous articles that we had actively attended conferences and workshops (at Padova, Chicago, Birmingham, Torino and Cambridge) presenting our researches, I will not be verbosely sharing again how fantastic it was to communicate our results with other brilliant statisticians in these occations. But in this blog I would address one more precious experience in our PhD study that the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Initial Training Network (ITN) scheme of IDEAS requires ESRs to spend a couple of months in another university or industrial partner. These secondments give us a chance to exchange creative ideas, learn more practical aspects of clinical trial designs, and potentially cultivate cross-institutional collaborations. I have just completed my first secondment with AstraZeneca (AZ) in Cambridge, UK. Though lasting for only two weeks, it turned out to be a very enriching visit.

It is true that changes in lifestyle and working environment are not always easy, especially when you aim at embracing some achievements within a short-term stay. Luckily I have been in Cambridge before, so finding an accommodation was not a cumbersome issue. I decided to stay in the St Catharine’s College, of which the location might not be ideal in terms of commuting. But never have I regretted, as my expectation was two-fold: 1) to gain some experience pertinent to my research, and 2) to see the university life in Cambridge.

My AZ secondment started off with meeting Dr Alun Bedding, who has kindly arranged all the logistics of this secondment that includes a number of discussions with statisticians and pharmacologists. Since my research focus is on improving design/conduct/analysis of first-in-man studies using pre-clinical information, during my secondment I particularly paid attention to the local scheme for early drug development, where the animal-to-human translational research counts essentially. We had very interesting discussions on implications and statistical issues arising from trials such as the BIA-102474-101 study in France last year and the monoclonal antibody TGN1412 trial in 2006. These examples, referred to as disasters, reflect inadequate predictions of human response when translating doses for a human trial.


Platform of the Meldreth station — the scene from everyday when I got off the train

“Generally, animal data are not sufficiently translated due to the poor quality of most animal experiments and the lack of advanced methods in this area”, says one AZ statistician. These conversations have brought me to reality, and I realised that animal experiments and human trials have not yet been truly bridged: pre-clinical data (very limitedly) would be considered only informally in decision-makings of a first-in-man study. There leaves large room for innovation, which is precisely the place where our researches (Projects 3 and 13) can come into play. Moreover, a comprehensive pre-clinical study shall never miss contributions from statisticians. The AZ statisticians, whom I have been speaking with, have also kindly introduced their industrial approaches to dose escalation, which encouraged me to think interactively and to refine our own method.

Although intensive meetings kept me busy during this secondment, I took advantage of the only weekend to see the lovely Cambridge town that is among popular destinations for sightseeing throughout the whole year. Visitors seem to be so fascinated with punting that the River Cam is always busier than most streets. Rather than joining those groups, I was much keen on enjoying the solitude – getting to know the town in less crowded places on foot. On the afternoon of Saturday, paintings in the Fitzwilliam museum were quite a surprise!

It is surely wonderful to have such a great experience, from which we can expand our knowledge and horizon. By the end of my AZ secondment, it was not only new ideas about my research but also the delight from knowing a new place that have been harvested.


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