A tale of three researchers: One step ahead

Widespread resistance to antibiotics, an increased proportion of elderly people and the health of coming generations. All these are examples of future challenges that we must work on immediately. Meet three young researchers at Karolinska Institutet who are not afraid to face the big issues.

Karin Modig “Are we adding healthy years to our lives?”

Name: Karin Modig.

Title: Assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Medicine.

Researches: An ageing population and what it will require in terms of health and medical services in the future.

“We live longer and longer, and one important question is of course: are we adding years of health or illness? This is a complex question, with no easy answer. The way I see it, I am completing a very large puzzle, and each new study constitutes a small piece of this puzzle.

An ageing population is often described as a problem, or a burden. To me, that is a prejudiced opinion. The image emerging in my research is still relatively bright; for a large part of the population the years added will be healthy. But there are always factors that make comparisons difficult in each study. The dream would be to be able to determine the outcome more exactly. I often think about issues relating to my own life and ageing, but that is probably due to my current situation as a relatively new parent. I try to live a healthy life, and wouldn’t mind making it to 100 years. Like anyone else, I would like to remain in good health of course.

There are many who say: ‘If I become ill, I’d like it to end fast’. But I think that’s a feeling that changes over the life course. Most people find out that they have a lot to live for, even after they become ill. It is not easy to guess how long people will live in the future. On the one hand, we have noticed that the age of the oldest members of our society does not tend to increase. On the other hand, there are important researchers who claim that the first person to reach the age of 200 has already been born.”

As told to Anders Nilsson

Edmund Loh: “The Dr. Jekyll & Hyde bacterium”

Name: Edmund Loh.

Title: Postdoc at the Department of Microbiology, Tumour and Cell Biology.

Researches: How bacteria sense the environments and how the bacterial non-coding RNAs could be used to combat antibiotic resistance.

“The bacterium my research focuses on- Neisseria meningitidis – can act like Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Most of the time, it lives peacefully on the mucosal membranes of the nose; however it can occasionally get into the bloodstream and rapidly cause life-threatening meningitis. Antibiotics are still effective against this bacterium, but this may not necessarily be the case in the future. When it comes to its sister bacterium- Neisseria gonorrhoeae; resistance to antibiotics is already a major problem. The increasing antibiotic resistance is a common topic of discussion among microbiologists, but I am somewhat astonished on how little this subject is being discussed elsewhere. To my surprise, not all my friends who research other topics know that interrupted antibiotic treatments could contribute to the emergence of resistant bacteria. In long term, I remain optimistic and believe that we will find new ways to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria. However, it might be a while before novel effective treatments could be developed.

I think we could be facing a dangerous glitch: a period during which we lack effective treatments against infection, similar to the time prior antibiotic discovery. The current situation is urgent, but the pressure to find a solution is not what motivates me but rather pure curiosity. Every day, I start new experiments and evaluate the ones from the day before. To me, it is like having a surprise waiting for me every morning when I come to work.”

As told to Anders Nilsson

Béatrice Skiöld: “We want healthy little survivors”

Name: Béatrice Skiöld.

Title: Researcher at the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health

Researches: The prematurely born brain.

“Around five per cent of all babies are born prematurely, and more and more of those born very early are surviving. In my research, I look at the brain of premature children using different imaging technologies. The goal is to understand which factors, before, during and after the birth, determine how the children do in the long term. We are not satisfied with just saving the lives of these children; we want strong survivors without brain injuries or other problems later in life.

Following an extremely premature birth, the parents are in chock. The last thing on their minds is some research study, so it’s no small thing to ask them for permission to study their child. But many of them are also grateful that this research is being done. They feel that neonatal care in Sweden is of a high quality, and they understand that we are trying to make it even better.

Thanks to the progress that has been made, very few of the extremely premature babies develop severe brain injuries these days. On the other hand, it is still common to see milder development disorders, language difficulties and neuropsychiatric diagnoses like ADHD and autism. I think that in the future, we will be better at preventing these problems too, as we learn more about what the brain needs to develop normally. This may involve adequate nutrition but also things like closeness and physical contact. For me, this research is a break from all the intense feelings of despair and joy that I experience working as a paediatrician. It gives me time for thought and reflection. At the same time, my contact with the patients gives me a sense of what this research is for, so I always feel motivated.

As told to Ola Danielsson

All texts first published in the magazine Medical Science 2015.