Europe has an ageing society that is increasingly susceptible to bacterial, fungal and viral infectious diseases. At the same time, antibiotic resistance is catching up with previously effective measures to prevent or fight infections. “As a result, untreatable microbial infections and conditions like those in the ‘pre-antibiotics era’ are emerging,” explains PRONKJEWAIL project coordinator Ymkje Stienstra, professor of Medicine and Clinical Epidemiologist at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) in the Netherlands. “These could have a major impact on society in the near future. Untreatable infections present a particularly serious threat for the very young, the frail elderly and immune-compromised individuals.”
Tailored training programmes
To meet these challenges, the PRONKJEWAIL project was proposed by the Microbes in Health and Disease research programme at the UMCG. The goal was to establish a dedicated doctoral research training programme that focuses on the beneficial or detrimental roles of microorganisms in human health and disease. This project, brought together 16 international PhD student who were guided by experienced supervisors in medical microbiology, intensive care, clinical pharmacy and surgery, and benefited from internships at international partner organisations. This was done with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme. “The emphasis on patients with susceptibility to infections became more relevant with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stienstra adds. “The students were able to seamlessly pivot their work and training to reflect this new reality.” Research training covered four key areas: vaccines and primary prevention; personalised detection; the microbiome; and personalised therapies. Students investigated new diagnostic tools for viral and bacterial infections. Recommendations were put forward for optimised drug delivery, dosing and personalised medicine. “Students attended a summer school for antimicrobial resistance, as well as courses on intercultural communication, data visualisation and media training,” notes Stienstra. “They also participated in the Symposium of Biology Students in Europe, hosted by Groningen PhDs in 2020.”
The PRONKJEWAIL project has helped to foster new talent within the next generation of medical researchers, and given the 16 pioneering students a head start in their subsequent careers. “The students valued the diverse training topics, and appreciated how the training programme was adapted to their needs,” says Stienstra. “Another notable success is how the students supported each other as friends. This not only contributed to joint scientific projects, but also contributed to a positive work-life balance.” The project’s relevance has increased as deeper insights were gained into the potential impact of outbreaks. Students made meaningful research contributions for papers including 'COVID-19 and Tuberculosis in Migrants – Why we need to focus on both' and 'From Therapeutic Drug Monitoring to Model-Informed Precision Dosing for Antibiotics'. “A focus on fundamental research has also produced positive results,” remarks Stienstra. “Students have contributed to better influenza vaccine design and better diagnostic techniques to prevent bacterial and viral outbreaks, as well as the design of diagnostic probes to aid clinicians in the detection and treatment of infections.” Training developed with PRONKJEWAIL will now be incorporated into future PhD programmes. “We would also very much like to develop training for postdocs based on the PRONKJEWAIL format, to further support them in their careers,” says Stienstra.
PRONKJEWAIL, health, antibiotics, medicine, infections, microbiology, microbiome