17 November 2020
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BBMRI.nl interview series: Arfan Ikram

In order to showcase the variety of work in BBMRI.nl, we dedicate special news items to BBMRI.nl investigators. We ask them about their work for BBMRI.nl. What excites and challenges them the most, especially during the present COVID-19 pandemic? And how do they see the future for our activities?

What is the focus of your work within the BBMRI.nl project?
I am affiliated to the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam and the Department of Epidemiology specifically. The focus of my work on BBMRI.nl is twofold. Firstly, two years ago I took over the work on omics and genomics from Cornelia van Duijn in BBMRI.nl. Second, around the same time the various cohorts and biobanks connected to BBMRI were invited to be more visibly represented in BBMRI and as such I am representing the Rotterdam study on part of ErasmusMC in the project.

Prof. Arfan Ikram - Department head of Epidemiology and Principal Investigator
of the Rotterdam Study,
Erasmus MC Rotterdam

What do you enjoy the most about your work on the project?
Apart form the science, which for me is related to neurological outcomes, I appreciate the networking opportunities, getting to know others and, most importantly, sharing ideas and hearing those of others. We are all more or less in the same boat, facing similar challenges, thinking of similar solutions. In that sense, it is always useful to exchange ideas and this really accelerates progress instead of each of us doing our work separately. This is the aspect I enjoy the most, I must say.

What is challenging about your work on BBMRI.nl?
Well, like with many other things, the strengths can be weaknesses and vice versa. In this regard, you learn a lot from each other when sharing ideas. Nevertheless, that diversity of ideas can also hamper the process if you need to standardize things and make sure we all are on the same page. Sometimes each of us has their own solutions to specific problems. We therefore have to make sure that ideas are aligned and data is harmonized as well. This is one of the aims of BBMRI.nl but also a challenge we face.

What do you think is the importance of the project for the wider field of data sharing and health research?
We first need to realize the international position that The Netherlands has. BBMRI.nl includes various medical centres, institutes and studies. However, for the wider world, the Netherlands is a fairly small country. Previously we were viewed as very much diversified and scattered. Now with the unification, so to speak, which BBMRI.nl brought about, we can proudly say that we are not that scattered anymore. We are moving forward to really collaborate and work as one. Internationally speaking, this has truly increased our standing. Now we matter once again on international level, where you see big initiatives such as the German national cohort, UK Biobank and others being active. On a national level, work is getting tougher in all areas so you need to find innovate ways to showcase your strengths. You also need to demonstrate the return of investment, so to speak, on research funds. If you can reduce this scattering and realize unification in a virtual framework such as BBMRI.nl has achieved, this will really provide a competitive edge.

What makes BBMRI.nl unique in your view?
Looking into the historical context, BBMRI.nl was the first robust set-up that worked and showed people can collaborate and trust each other, although we represent different UMCs. I think BBMRI.nl has really been the driving force for other similar initiatives. I know of other similar initiatives which were not as successful. In contrast, BBMRI.nl is the first to show tangible results and to succeed beyond its primary partners. It really has served as a template for similar initiatives. All in all, I think the fact that BBMRI.nl is the first majorly successful national initiative makes it unique.

Which BBMRI product or accomplishment would you highlight as deserving more attention, and why?
I think the work done with regards to ELSI (the service desk which offers guidance on and answers to ethical, legal and societal questions around personalized medicine research faced by life science professionals, policy makers and patients) serves as the primary example for other initiatives. Creating the ELSI Servicedesk truly professionalized the field and, I believe, without BBMRI.nl this would not have happened. In my research I have been referring a lot to the work on ELSI within BBMRI.nl.

How do you foresee the future for the BBMRI.nl activities?
Within BBMRI.nl we have been working towards getting funded for the coming period, but the future remains uncertain. Yet, this process does allow you to re-strategize and re-invent yourself. I think this is a very good thing.

Furthermore, what you see very often is pattern in which the first pioneer has to overcome various challenges. Once successful, several similar initiatives start developing soon afterwards. You then end up in a competitive setting with those other initiatives. Sometimes the original pioneers seem to struggle more than others just to keep themselves going. In a next phase, it would be great if such initiatives can align with each other to reach complementarity instead of competition.

How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your work on BBMRI.nl?
Well, BBMRI has in fact been set-up with a strong focus on remote working and work being done across the various centres. In that sense, the set-up for physical distance was already there. Moreover, seeing a lot of the results and publications coming out of the project, it is evident that there is no need for data to be gathered in one centre only. There are many other options and, in fact, BBMRI.nl has developed those options. I that regard, I don’t think we needed to change any topics, scientific content or deliverables of our work for BBMRI.nl.

However, many of the PIs and BBMRI.nl leaders have such roles in their own institutes that during the pandemic they were also required to spend time on some of the COVID-19 research-related activities in these centres. For instance, I am a member of the COVID-19 committee at ErasmusMC and I coordinate the COVID-19 clinical study there. Many of my colleagues in BBMRI.nl have similar responsibilities and we all had to divert our attention to other more urgent tasks for a while. As a consequence, we experienced a delay in our work on BBMRI.nl that would otherwise have not occurred if it wasn’t for the pandemic. I would say that this has been the primary impact of COVID-19 on my BBMRI.nl work.

What opportunities do you think were created for BBMRI.nl during the present COVID-19 pandemic?
What you see now is that with the COVID-19 crisis there are many research activities set-up urgently to address the pandemic. Many researchers had ideas and they all started working on them from scratch. In contrast, a lot of the infrastructure needed and the thought-process that goes into building it was already available within BBMRI.nl before the crisis. This infrastructure is being used in couple of initiatives already where the BBMRI.nl set-up is employed. This is the main opportunity for us, I believe – to show what the impact of BBMRI.nl is in the field and demonstrate how its set-up is being used by other initiatives, which goes beyond the original aims of the project.