A special look at the work of the team at Saarland University leading the MyPal Child study.

Founded over 70 years ago, in 1948, Saarland University (USAAR) in Germany now has nearly 17,000 students spread across six different faculties and a worldwide reputation for its work in computer science, informatics and biosciences.

While most of the university’s faculties are located in Saarbrucken, the state capital, the Medical Faculty and Saarland University Hospital (UKS) are both located on the university’s Homburg campus, 30km to the east. This is where the department of Paediatric Oncology and Haematology, headed by MyPal’s Professor Dr. Norbert Graf, is based.

Saarland University Women’s Hospital and the Center for Child and Youth Medicine

The Women’s Hospital and the Center for Child and Youth Medicine which includes the department Paediatric Oncology and Haematology. (Source: Photo Rüdiger Koop, UKS)

World-leading research

The department treats children and teenagers with cancer in Saarland and the surrounding area. But along with their clinical work, they also carry out world-leading research on nephroblastoma (or Wilms’ tumour as it is also known). “This is the most common form of renal cancer found in children,” explains Graf.

“Saarland University has been running clinical studies for nephroblastoma for over 25 years, and with the help of these studies, cure rates of more than 90% can be achieved today.”

Drawing on the university’s expertise in computer science, a key part of this research has involved modelling responses to the treatment of this tumour in the computer, a process known as in silico oncology. But for further improvements, modelling of the disease using big data is needed. That is the analysis of the vast quantities of information now being produced by digital technologies.

Big data

The work on big data at Saarland is currently being carried out in a number of different research projects, some European-wide funded by the EU, others funded from within Germany. One result of all these projects is the Study Trial and Research Centre (STaRC) founded by Professor Graf which develops and provides IT-tools to facilitate clinical cancer studies.

“All these projects are paving the way to personalized medicine, where digital health is a major pillar.”

A vision

It is a vision which drives Professor Graf’s research. Along with research projects using big data, his team have also been involved with another aspect of digital health: the use of digital technology, such as mobile devices and apps, to enhance patient care. It is this vision which underpins MyPal.

“The objectives of MyPal are in line with many of the EU projects Saarland University has been a partner in, and is a great opportunity to continue and enhance the results of the iManageCancer project,” continues Graf.

“It also enables us to draw on the advice and expertise of the Centre of Palliative Care and Paediatric Pain at Saarland University Hospital. They do work on symptom control, such as pain, breathlessness, fatigue, and nausea, and also carry out complementary treatment research.”

These two paintings were created by children at the centre.

Child's drawing of a house, bright sun and a dog

Leaving his home and dog, 12 years old

Child's painting of two zebras rubbing each others necks

You are never alone, 17 years old

Professor Graf’s team at Saarland are heading the MyPal-CHILD research protocol task force, are also leading one of the most important tasks of the project: the implementation, evaluation and impact assessment of both the MyPal-ADULT and the MyPal-CHILD studies.

Great hopes

The team have great hopes for the project.

“First of all, we hope that the clinical studies can demonstrate that the MyPal system will be of great benefit for patients – adults and children – who need palliative care. In addition, we also hope to show that these tools can also support care-givers as well. If the studies show this, it will be a big step in demonstrating the importance of mHealth to the future of healthcare.

“We hope the MyPal system will have such an impact in the field of palliative care that it will be widely taken up by those involved with palliative medicine.”

The challenges

Along with the hopes, Professor Graf is aware of the many challenges.

“The greatest challenges are mainly all the administrative and bureaucratic work related to clinical studies,” he explains. “This is time consuming and will hopefully not delay the start and running of the trials. A second challenge is actually enrolling patients in the prospective clinical studies and then keeping them in the study using the MyPal platform throughout.

“This is a very ambitious part of the project,” concludes Graf, “but, as all the partners are working closely and successfully together, we are doing everything to minimise the risks.”

Saarland University Fact File

  • Saarland University Hospital treats more than 54.000 inpatients and nearly 190.000 outpatients each year.
  • Almost 20% of students studying at Saarland University come from outside Germany.
  • The Medical School currently has 1,800 students.
  • The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the ‘Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft’ (DFG) and German Cancer Aid all fund research at Saarland.
  • ACGT, ContraCancrum, TUMOR, CONTRACT, EURECA, p-medicine (Project Coordinator), MyHealthAvatar, CHIC and iManageCancer are just some of the big data and cancer projects Saarland University are currently or recently involved with.