EASO Early Career Network Best Thesis award winner for 2023: Nele Steenackers

EASO Early Career Network Best Thesis award winner for 2023: Nele Steenackers https://vimeo.com/833121158/93b0dc8003

Congratulations on winning the award presented at the Early Career Network session at ECO2023 in Dublin! Lovely to meet with you, Nele, and to share information about your work with the wider EASO community. Tell us a bit about your personal story. Where did you grow up, and what were your interests in childhood and adolescence?

Thank you for having me at ECO2023 and for the congratulations! As for my personal story, I was born and raised in Belgium often surrounded by nature. Alongside this, my family’s passion for cooking sparked an early interest in nutrition. Over time, I became curious about the connection between the food we eat and our health. This interest evolved into my career as a researcher in the field of obesity.

Can you tell us more about your primary motivations to study obesity in general and the impacts of bariatric surgery on gastrointestinal physiology in particular?

My fascination with the human body’s complexity and my love for food and nutrition led me to study Biomedical Sciences, with a minor in Nutrition, and to obtain a bachelor’s in Nutrition and Dietetics. These studies fuelled my interest in obesity and its impacts on our health. At the start of my PhD, I was particularly drawn to the effects of bariatric surgery on gastrointestinal physiology, a powerful yet not fully understood obesity treatment. My goal has been to unravel these complexities to improve patient outcomes (for nutrition and drugs) and contribute to the understanding of obesity management. This blend of patient-driven and biomedical research continues to drive my work today.

How has your background in biomedical sciences and specialisation in nutrition informed your research approach?

While obesity has traditionally been viewed mainly as a nutritional issue, my Biomedical Sciences background has shaped my understanding of it as a complex and chronic disease. This, coupled with my training as a registered dietitian, helps me approach obesity research more holistically, focusing on both its physiological complexity and the individual patient’s experiences.

Your research used innovative techniques like wireless motility capsules and intraluminal sampling. Can you describe how these techniques have enhanced your findings?

Innovative techniques like wireless motility capsules and intraluminal sampling have revolutionised our research approach. The wireless capsules provide a unique method to measure pH, pressure, and temperature throughout the gastrointestinal tract, offering a wealth of information previously accessible only through a combination of multiple and more invasive methods. Intraluminal sampling, meanwhile, provides unique samples for a combination of analyses available that previously we’ve never been able to obtain so directly. Combining these techniques provide us with a more comprehensive picture, thus significantly improving our understanding of bariatric surgery’s effects on the gastrointestinal tract.

You’ve mentioned that your findings have created a stepping stone for developing new therapies for obesity. Can you explain what types of therapies you envision?

Our research identified significant physiological changes in people living with obesity and those who have undergone bariatric surgery. These findings could allow the investigation of new obesity treatments that emulate these changes without surgery. But we are not there yet.

Your research suggests that the treatment of obesity and related complications isn’t adequately personalised. How do you think healthcare providers can better tailor treatments to individuals in the future?

The gastrointestinal changes in people with obesity or those who’ve had bariatric surgery can affect the pharmacokinetics of medications. Therefore, we must consider these changes when prescribing existing drugs (that are often developed based on the gastrointestinal tract of people without obesity or bariatric surgery), and adjust the formulation or dosing when needed. I believe more efforts should also be drawn toward investigating the impact of these alterations more early during the drug development process and investigating the impact of existing drugs using in vitro or in silico modelling ing for both populations. By doing so, we can optimise the effectiveness of treatments, paving the way for more personalised care.

It seems your work can have significant implications for improving the likelihood of patients following medical advice. Could you talk about challenges you’ve observed around patients following recommended protocols, especially among people living with obesity or having undergone bariatric surgery?

Adherence to medical advice can be challenging among all individuals, but is especially influenced in case of a lack of understanding about the impact of a condition (like obesity or bariatric surgery), the presence of complications, or drug issues (that are common after bariatric surgery). Our qualitative research indicates that compliance with a medical regimen is affected in people after bariatric surgery in the presence of gastrointestinal side effects, that might be related to the changes in gastrointestinal physiology. Investigating the impact of gastrointestinal alterations on drug pharmacokinetics, and educating both healthcare providers and patients, remains essential for improving these challenges.

Do you think this recognition from the EASO will influence the dissemination and application of your research findings in clinical practice?

Absolutely. Recognition from the European Association for the Study of Obesity greatly enhances the visibility and credibility of my research. This could facilitate more widespread dissemination of our findings, prompting further research and discussion within the scientific community. This recognition certainly provides a powerful impetus to continue our work, pushing for the application of these findings in real-world settings to improve patient outcomes.

See a brief video presentation from Nele here: