Selected in 2020 and waiting because of Covid-19, Nathalie Conrad will participate in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting next summer. In 2022, the epidemiologist from KU Leuven completed a research project, which shows that patients with autoimmune disorders live with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The paper was published in The Lancet. In this blog post she talks to us about her research, her career, and her expectations for the upcoming Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Lindau Alumni and Young Scientists from Belgium or neighbouring regions interested in meeting other participants in the run-up of #LINO23, may get in contact with Nathalie.
Big Data in Health
The question of whether patients with autoimmune diseases are at increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases has been around for some time, because of the high levels of inflammation brought by autoimmunity. But to answer this question you need to have a large cohort of patients with autoimmune diseases, a control cohort to compare these to, and sufficiently long follow-up to see and compare who develops cardiovascular diseases over time. Because individual autoimmune diseases are relatively rare, this had not been possible so far. To complete this study, we had to combine several datasets from different healthcare settings (primary care, hospital admissions, and outpatient procedures, and different IT systems) for a total of 22 million individuals. We then looked at a broad range of diseases (19 autoimmune diseases and 12 cardiovascular diseases) plus a whole range of other variables like CVD preventive therapies and classical CVD risk factors (such as blood pressure, BMI, smoking, cholesterol and diabetes). This allowed us to examine and compare differences in patients with and without autoimmune diseases. The biggest challenge here was to extract each of these datasets individually following different procedures in the different data sources and going through this systematically and meticulously in one of the largest biomedical datasets available today.
I got the idea for this study by reading articles about rheumatoid arthritis and lupus being associated with cardiovascular diseases. That intrigued me. When I looked into this further, I realised there is very little data for other autoimmune diseases, essentially because they are so rare and it is difficult to get a sufficiently large dataset to study long-term outcomes in these patients. I usually work with these very large datasets of electronic health records which provide anonymised information on medical diagnoses of several million individuals and many years of follow-up, so I thought this might be the perfect setting to do a study looking at cardiovascular outcomes in a broad range of autoimmune diseases.
What drives me to do medical research is the impact it can have on patients’ health and quality of life. In this case we found that patients with autoimmune diseases are at higher risk of developing cardiovascular problems than people who do not have autoimmune disease. This might not sound like good news for patients, but knowing about these risk is important because this means we can now start developing specific cardiovascular disease prevention measures. From previous trials we do have some good indications as to what could be effective and we are hoping that new trials will be run with both existing and new drugs specifically for patients with autoimmune diseases.
Working in academia is hard sometimes, but I haven’t regretted it so far as it was a very conscious decision to become a scientist. A long time ago, I was working for IBM as a data analytics consultant. During that time, I was cooperating with IBM research – which is actually one of the largest industrial R&D labs in the world – and found that very inspiring. I decided that I too would like to be a scientist, left my career at IBM and engaged into a PhD at Oxford.
As an engineer working in medical research, my research quite naturally focused towards analysing large-scale biomedical data. My PhD supervisor was a cardiologist and an epidemiologist. I guess his enthousiasm for the field rubbed off on me and so cardiovascular diseases and their causes have quickly established as my special interest. I now do a broad range of epidemiological studies, sometimes in other clinical areas, but my heart really lies in cardiology.
Anticipation of #LINO23
I really look forward to hearing Nobel Laureates talk about their research and career perspectives, but what I look forward most is meeting both young and experienced scientists from a broad range of scientific fields to exchange ideas with.
As it will take more than six months until the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting starts, maybe we could organise a brief local pre-Lindau meeting to get to know each other? There are further scientists from Belgium invited to #LINO23. So why not meet before? I would be glad to hear from you.