Population study: "We want to track the study participants over many years"

Interview with Dr. Kerstin Wirkner, Head of the Leipzig Research Center for Civilization Diseases

How do diseases of civilization develop and can they be prevented when you know triggering factors? A new National Cohort should deliver answers in the coming years. The Leipzig Research Center for Civilization Diseases is involved in this study. We spoke with Dr. Kerstin Wirkner, who is going to co-supervise the study in Leipzig.


Photo: Young woman with short brown hair - Dr. Kerstin Wirkner

Dr. Kerstin Wirkner; ©private

Dr. Wirkner, how many people are you going to survey for the new National Cohort?

Kerstin Wirkner: The National Cohort is a large, nationwide German study that seeks to examine 200,000 citizens on their health status. This takes place in 18 study centers and Leipzig is one of them. We are going to examine 10,000 study participants over the coming years at our facility. Our participants are determined using sampling procedure, meaning via random selection, by the Leipzig municipality authority. They are going to be between 20 and 69 years old, in which they are stratified by age and gender, meaning there will always be the same number of men and women in one age group. Those are the requirements of the study center. All 18 study centers in Germany will work based on the same operating procedures and with the same equipment. This works great for all, because you can exactly compare the data gathered from different locations.

What is the timeframe for this project?

Wirkner: The first investigation runs until the end of April 2018, where a subsequent follow-up study is already planned and expected to last until 2022. Overall, we want to track the study participants over many years, hopefully until at least the year 2040. Health questionnaires will be sent to participants time and again, but there will also be new examinations in the study centers.
Graphic: Many different people as comic book characters

The study is intended to deliver cross-population comparability; ©panthermedia.net/ ayelet keshet

Which diseases are you going to investigate?

Wirkner: We are interested in the major diseases of civilization, in particular cardiovascular diseases, cancer, dementia and metabolic disorders. There will always be two test groups. In one group, the exams will take approximately three hours; the other group will take about six hours. The difference in time is because the exams in the second group will be far more extensive. Cardiovascular data will be recorded, ‒there will be a cardiac ultrasound and blood pressure measurements for example ‒ eye exams and a hearing test. We also require blood, urine and saliva samples to be able to acquire data for the laboratory.

Are the study participants going to receive the results of your study?

Wirkner: The participants in Leipzig have the option to have a completion letter sent to them. It includes the most important findings of their tests such as laboratory results for instance. Should there be any conspicuous data, it will be pointed out to the participants and suggested for them to see a general practitioner or specialist.

Will that be enough? Maybe you are going to detect cancer in one of the study participants.

Wirkner: That is rather unlikely here in Leipzig, since we are not using an MRI. But there are three study centers that take magnetic resonance images. Theoretically, you could therefore detect tumors during the study by incidental findings. Obviously, you then would have a one-on-one conversation with the study participant to address this issue.

Are sociodemographic factors also going to be included in the study?

Wirkner: Of course, because it is essential that we also know about the participants‘ living conditions for the study analysis. During the interview sessions, we will therefore ask several questions in that regard. We want to know for example whether somebody exercises on a regular basis, whether he or she is a smoker, what environment he or she lives in etc.

How does the general public benefit from this study?

Wirkner: On the one hand, the study participants receive information on their state of health. On the other hand, the next generation benefits from this by being able detect diseases sooner and more reliably in the future. We also want to be able to offer more individualized treatment options in the future. Our study results make it possible for physicians to expand their knowledge over the next few years and to identify unhealthy aspects in their patients as early as possible.
Photo: Simone Ernst; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Simone Ernst and translated by Elena O'Meara.