I had an opportunity to chat with Dr. Yinshan Zhao, a statistician working with the Multiple Sclerosis/MRI research group at The University of British Columbia. Dr. Zhao presented her data on the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for measuring responses to therapy here at ECTRIMS. I was happy to hear that her study, funded by the MS Society of Canada, was recently accepted by the Journal of American Statistical Association, a leading journal in statistical research. I wanted to touch base with Dr. Zhao to hear more about her work and its application in the clinic.
How did you get involved in MS research?
Back in 2003, when I was still a graduate student, I saw a job posting from The University of British Columbia MS/MRI research group. They were looking for someone with a statistics background. At the time I didn’t know too much about MS or MRI, and so I reached out to a professor in the stats department who had a strong background in MS. He provided me with a lot of helpful information on pivotal clinical trials in MS.
Shortly after that I went in for an interview with Dr. Traboulsee and some of his colleagues. Since joining his team I learned a lot about MS and became involved with many projects through which I collaborated with brilliant researchers from all fields.
How do you apply your background and knowledge in statistics to studies in MS?
I use my stats knowledge to analyze research data, and develop research methods that address complex questions about MS. A big part of my work involves the design and analysis of MS clinical trials with focus on MRI. I am also involved in studies related to the British Columbia MS Database which is a very interesting initiative.
What kind of research have you presented at ECTRIMS and what is the importance of your work in MS?
The research I am presenting in my poster is related to monitoring the safety of clinical trial participants. As you know, every clinical trial is designed to evaluate the efficacy and safety of a particular treatment. It’s very important to monitor the safety of people who are participating in clinical trials to ensure that they do not experience any harmful effects from the treatment. It is also critical to know how a person is responding to therapy. One way of doing that is to look for changes in the activity of lesions on MRI, which is an indication of MS disease severity.
I developed a monitoring tool which incorporates multiple MRI scans that can accurately measure and predict changes in MS disease in people while on treatment.
Are there similar tools such as the one you have developed that are already been used in clinical trials?
The idea of monitoring changes in lesion activity in clinical trials is not new, but there are limitations to current procedures. They do not account for the high variability in people with MS. Each person affected by MS experiences a different course of disease.
This new procedure we are developing can be tailored to each individual and more effectively monitor and predict changes in disease activity over time.
Is there use for this tool in the future to determine not only the safety of a drug but whether the drug is producing an effect?
Yes. One way to determine if a drug is actually working is by observing a type of lesion that can identified and measured using this new tool. We would also like to further develop our model to incorporate additional clinical information to create a more comprehensive patient monitoring tool, and Identify which patients respond to treatment and which patients do not.
What is the ultimate goal of this research and how will it impact the person living with MS?
This method, if applied, will make for safer and more effective clinical trials. Better clinical trials will help to accelerate the discovery of a cure for MS.