And that is exactly what Thomas Stiehl will do in his upcoming studies of chronic myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs) and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).
Acute myeloid leukaemia is an extremely serious and aggressive type of leukaemia. It prevents the bone marrow from forming blood cells in the normal manner and often develops in connection with MPNs.
Thomas Stiehl is one of the nine promising researchers who will receive a Lundbeck Foundation Fellowship in 2020, and he is particularly well placed to wrestle with MPNs and AML. He is a doctor but also holds a PhD in mathematics, and he will certainly need the expertise he has acquired from both fields.
Thomas Stiehl will use his Lundbeck Foundation Fellowship to establish his own research group at the Department of Science and Environment at Roskilde University (RUC).
He and his colleagues will spend the next five years studying several of the aspects of chronic myeloproliferative neoplasms and AML that make these diseases difficult to treat and, at the same time, make it difficult to achieve the ultimate goal, which is to cure them.
‘The great challenge we face when studying chronic myeloproliferative neoplasms and AML – as well as a number of other types of leukaemia – is that the biological processes of these diseases mainly take place in the bone marrow. And because we can’t study these processes directly, we’ll attempt to construct mathematical models which will hopefully give us answers to many of the questions about the disease in an individual patient; questions such as how he or she is likely to react to the treatment and what the prognosis is,’ says Thomas Stiehl.
Today, an oncologist can have two AML patients of the same age, with the same pathological sub-type and comparable in a broad range of other aspects, and give them identical treatment – yet the outcomes can ultimately prove to be very different. One patient will do well and the other may not survive.
The mathematical models Thomas Stiehl aims to develop will be used to test a range of hypotheses regarding the biology underlying chronic myeloproliferative neoplasms and AML, e.g. about cell division and cell maturation and how cells react to various types of therapy. The models will estimate how different biological processes contribute to the clinical picture of the disease. They do this by comparing computer simulations of the hypothesis with large volumes of patient data and data from international research results.
‘The answers the models give don’t provide actual proof, but they indicate whether the hypothesis could hold water – and whether it makes sense to investigate it further. This is how we have to proceed when we aren’t able to observe biological processes directly,’ explains Thomas Stiehl.