MDS Community Conversations: The Impact of COVID-19 on Scientific Research Activities

MDS-OnDemand Blogs

MDS Community Conversations Advisory Team:  Victor Fung, MBBS, PhD, FRACP; Kelvin Chou, MD, FAAN; Maria Stamelou, MD, PhD, FEAN; Catalina Cerquera-Cleves, MD; Oluwadamilola Ojo, MD; Woong-Woo Lee, MD; Michele Matarazzo, MD

Prepared by Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren, PhD  

 

Research studies cannot suddenly stop because of a pandemic, participants still require treatment. In this interview, Prof. Brit Mollenhauer provides insight into how researchers have been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. She also shares the goals of the new Basic Scientist Special Interest Group and how to get involved.

Prof. Brit Mollenhauer is a neurologist at Paracelsus Elena Clinic, a Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders specialty hospital, and she is on the faculty at University of Göttingen.

This work was originally produced as a podcast and can be found here.


Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Hello, and welcome to this edition of MDS Community Conversations. I'm your host, Dr. Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren, and I want to start by thanking the MDS podcast team for their continued collaboration.

Today, I am honored to be joined by Professor Britt Mollenhauer, an expert in neurochemistry and biomarkers and the co-chair of our new Basic Science Special Interest Group. We are here today to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on research labs. How are you today, Professor Mollenhauer?

Brit Mollenhauer: Good, thank you very much. Looking forward to our conversation.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: All right. Well then let's dive right in. Can you first tell us a little bit about your research labs, what you study, and what your setup is like?

Brit Mollenhauer:  My main interest research wise is very translational. I do see the patients a lot. I have a 50% commitment with patients in the clinic, and then I have a 50% research position at the University of Göttingen. Since I do a lot of translational science, it's really all about, looking for interesting patients, taking samples, analyzing it in the lab, and looking out for other groups that may it be interested in the samples or in further research to establish biomarkers in Parkinson's disease.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren:  You have both like a bench lab and a kind of clinical side to your lab then?

Brit Mollenhauer: Yeah, exactly. And the combination is actually great because, you know, I take the ideas from the patient to the lab and vice versa. So it's really a very translational what I do.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Then when COVID showed up, how did that impact your research?

Brit Mollenhauer:  I think when COVID was very active here in Germany and since my research is very translational, first of all, I do rely on patients and, our clinic was closed for about eight weeks. because, all our patients are really of high risk. They are very old, they have a lot of comorbidities, and also the government asked us to send patients home who are not acutely ill, so we, more or less closed to be open for other patients.

And, so I would say I was mainly lacking patients right at that time, but we continued with the study patients. We continued to see patients who were on a pharmaceutical trial not to stop their medication and that was good.

But, in terms of research it was sometimes, really a bit difficult to ship out samples to other labs. So for example, there was a shipment to Luxembourg, but didn't get through the border. And so that was delayed. And I also ordered a few chemicals and antibodies, and this was a little bit delayed, but it was nothing really serious. I mean, I think overall, we were kind of lucky that things went on smoothly mainly because my lab, my research lab is also in the clinic and that didn't close.

 I know other completely research-based, labs close down and they really, were in trouble.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Yeah, that would be hard to suddenly stop everything.

Brit Mollenhauer: Yeah, exactly. When, when you have cell culture, things going, or even animal work, it's really hard to stop immediately and to get going.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: Were animal facilities still accessible for researchers during that time?

Brit Mollenhauer: So they were at our facility.  I think not for all of them.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: So then thinking about when it was after that eight weeks and you were coming back to the clinic, how were your participants feeling?

Brit Mollenhauer:  We kind of have to divide patients who were then treated again, which was good because some just waited for us to open up again, to get treatment.

But in terms of research patients, I mean, again, the patients for clinical trials, they still came in. And, we also continued with our observational cohort studies. So at least for the L-Dopa, we continued. PPMI was stopped. The good thing is that the study participants were really happy because overall it was a safe place.

 We also started very, very soon and to do swap tasks for PCR on COVID-19 for every participant coming in and also participants. But the participants at visit, they get this swap test. Everybody here was not only wearing masks. But we had FFP2 masks and face shields and gloves and protection wear.

So, overall I think we were equipped very well and patients felt very safe and also, probably sometimes glad to see a human being outside their other surrounding.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren:  You mentioned the precautions you needed to take on the clinical side. What about on the bench science side?

Brit Mollenhauer: Right on the bench side again, we were lacking a few chemicals that didn't come in.

So, that was a little bit delayed, but overall, I mean, for myself, my personal experience, things were going on pretty smoothly. I know from other labs, not only Luxembourg, but New York that were completely closed and not even open for any researcher. And that was, that was definitely strange.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: How have your colleagues who were closed for a while, have they been able to make up for lost time?

Brit Mollenhauer: Yeah, I think we, I mean, since we all don't travel that much right now. I think there's more time we are in the clinic or in the research lab to really catch up with what we haven't been able to do, in such a timely manner now.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: What about grant agencies? Have they been willing to work with investigators? If things have been slowed, are they giving allowances for that?

Brit Mollenhauer:  The agencies that I work with were very generous. I mean, the Michael J. Fox foundation for Parkinson's research, they were very, very open, very soon offering non-cost extensions.

I mean, you would still have additional costs because of you have to pay the staff. But overall, so far it went really smoothly. And most of our staff is actually also kind of, attached to the clinic. So, we didn't have really had major losses, I would say. And, and the agencies have been very supportive.

I would say I'm really thankful for that, because that happened in such a short time and they were really, really very helpful.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: That's great to hear. All right. We're going to shift a little bit on our topic here. Cause I want to talk about how COVID-19 has influenced your direction of research. So have you had any changes in direction, or new research questions you want to ask as the result of this pandemic?

Brit Mollenhauer: Right. I mean, overall I have always been very interested in the cause of Parkinson's disease and maybe inflammation as a problem in Parkinson's disease as a trigger of Parkinson's disease. And so overall, the topics already quite familiar, like if Parkinson's disease may be triggered by some inflammation from the outside, let's say.

So, but of course, I think the pandemic really pushed this a little bit further. So, we really try to find now metabolites of bacteria or viruses to influence the disease and aging itself. And, we also started to collect samples specifically from PD patients. That happened, higher antibody titer of antibodies against COVID-19 so that we could specifically do more research in this area and the, in the future.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: That's really interesting. I'm excited to hear more about that as you move forward with those studies. I'm sure you'll have some interesting papers to read. How about other research of outside of your personal area of research. Is there any other questions related to the pandemic that you're hoping to other investigators will pursue?

Brit Mollenhauer: Yeah, I think they were a couple of really, I mean, the, the amount of papers and research on, on now COVID-19 and other that's really interesting and, and a lot we can do here. And, maybe something I would like to tell is that the hospital I work in that's the Paracelsus-Elena hospital. And this was really founded in 1937. When another pandemic was in Europe, and that was through the encephalitis lethargica that we had more PD patients in Europe and then these PD, specialized hospitals really came up. And that's really something that kind of, we follow all the time with this question.

How can maybe a virus can trigger disease or aging?  So overall, I think this research can actually not only maybe help to elucidate the cause of Parkinson's disease, but really to help to understand aging itself. And then of course, prevention and early detection of disease aging like with Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease.

 Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: I would love to hear more about that, but we don't have enough time to really dive into some of those things. So instead, since we have a little bit of time left, I also wanted to take a few minutes here and talk about the new basic science special interest group here at MDS. This is a recently formed group chaired by Professor Svenningsson and Professor Mollenhauer.

The chairs have collected applications for and selected the steering committee members this past summer. They're currently meeting, just start working on action plans to achieve their goals, which we're going to talk about in a minute. But first, if any of our listeners are interested in joining the special interest group, it's super easy.

You need to go to your MDS account, make sure that you renew your membership for 2021. Then in your member profile, there's a section labeled, “Special Interest Group". Under that heading, you need to select Basic Science. You will then be set up to get all of the communications from the group, which will include ways for you to get involved.

Professor Mollenhauer, can you tell us what are the goals of the new basic science special interest group?

Brit Mollenhauer: Sure. I mean, first of all, Per Svenningsson and myself and the steering committee are really happy for this group to become more active very soon. We have already met, now and will further meet on a regular basis.

I think it's really overwhelming how many people are interested to join the group, and we are still happy for others to join. I think, the overall idea is really to bring together clinical or clinical neurologists doing movement disorders in the clinic and basic scientists. The good thing is, me being a clinician, I do know that I have a focus but bringing people together who come from a different angle, like basic science, this can really improve our understanding of the disease.

We can really do things beyond what we have done in the past. I really see this as a big chance to really, for everybody, for clinical neurologists and basic scientists to look beyond their own focuses and to really improve the knowledge. And this is something which is a little bit new to the Movement Disorders Society. I know, but it's, it's something which we can really pursue.

I have been very fascinated about some basic science talks at the last virtual MDS meeting and many others, I now teach too. And it's also vice versa. I mean, I have somebody in my lab who has no idea about Parkinson's disease and he's a bioinformatics person. I bring him in the clinic to see a patient, to get ideas that he will then translate into his calculations and everything. And so I think, we all have to have our focus, but that's a really big chance to go beyond our focus and to really collaborate and do much more on, on this disease.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: You kind of already addressed this, but I'm going to ask anyway, if someone's on the fence about, should they join this or not? Why should MDS members get involved with this special interest group?

Brit Mollenhauer: I think we are looking for people who want to bring the ideas in how to move this forward. Our idea is really to have more basic science courses. Then have more basic science topics at the MDS Congress that happens annually. We really want to promote translational research and kind of focus on a meeting from both sides. So from the clinicians and the basic scientists, and I think everybody can really help. We really need you and your ideas, how to pursue this, because I think that's really the best idea we have to, to merge and to join forces and to really bring the research further together.

Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren: All right. Well, that's all I have. Thank you so much, Professor Mollenhauer this was just a pleasure to chat with you and hear about what is going on in research labs, and also to hear about our new special interest group and thank you to our listeners for your time. I'm Dr. Sarah Wahlstrom Helgren and this is MDS Community Conversations.

Brit Mollenhauer: Thank you very much.


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