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Large grant for research on the effect of cancer screening

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded DKK 9 million to Sisse Helle Njor for developing better analytical tools for assessing the effect of cancer screening. The grant is one of eight new grants awarded through the Foundation’s Data Science Investigator Programme.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of screening for such diseases as breast cancer and bowel cancer? This question is the focus of a new research project in which researchers will develop new statistical methods to assess how much the healthcare system reduces mortality from such diseases as breast cancer when women are offered screening.

Another purpose of the project is to develop better tools to assess the scale of overdiagnosis, in which screening has negative effects for some people.

Sisse Helle Njor, Associate Professor, Randers Regional Hospital and Aarhus University will lead the research, and she has just received DKK 9 million to realise the ambitions based on a Novo Nordisk Foundation Data Science Investigator grant.

“It means a lot that I now have the opportunity over a long period of time to undertake a major project that aims to develop a new method to assess how much screening can reduce the mortality of different types of cancer and assess the risk for overdiagnosis. This grant gives me peace of mind for 5 years, during which I can assemble a team of talented researchers to complete the project,” explains Sisse Helle Njor.

Today’s analysis is based on old data
In Denmark, the healthcare system has screened for breast cancer for decades and for bowel cancer since 2014. The purpose of screening is to identify people with cancer or precancerous lesions and treat them early, thereby reducing the mortality risk. However, the opportunities for assessing the effect of investing in these cancer screening programmes can be improved. This applies to reducing mortality but also to identifying the risk of overdiagnosis.

The question is how much or how little screening reduces the risk of dying from cancer or whether the screening in the worst case leads to overdiagnosis and overtreatment, in which screening identifies something that might not develop into harmful cancer anyway.

“The problem today is that we have not received new data on the effect of breast cancer screening since the 1990s. We therefore do not know the effect of this screening based on the treatment options we have today and how good we have become at diagnosis,” says Sisse Helle Njor.

Difficult statistical calculations
In the research, Sisse Helle Njor and colleagues will develop new methods to assess the effect of the screening programmes. To fulfil their goal, the researchers will use data from Denmark’s extensive health registries, which are among the best in the world because they are complete, nationwide and very comprehensive for each individual.

Sisse Helle Njor says that the project aims to overcome the problem that Denmark and most other places in the world do not have the opportunity to measure the effects of screening programmes against each other in a large cohort of people who are offered screening versus a large cohort of people who are not.

The calculations will therefore be statistical, aiming to distinguish the effect on those who participate in screening programmes versus those who do not. Since these two cohorts may differ in many possible respects in Denmark, the research aims to develop tools to enable comparisons to be made anyway.

“I expect that we will be able to show that screening programmes prevent mortality from cancer, but we still need to prove this scientifically. In addition, our research will also open up the possibility of enabling better personalised screening, in which we target some cohorts for screening but hold back for others. To achieve this, we need to know who will benefit most from screening and whether we should perhaps refrain from offering them to other groups,” explains Sisse Helle Njor.

Sisse Helle Njor says that the project would take much longer to realise without the grant from the Foundation. “The grant will enable me to bring together many talented researchers who can create good synergy around the project, instead of us having to work separately on each of our small parts,” she adds.

Grants to eight researchers
The grant for Sisse Helle Njor is one of eight new grants totalling DKK 73 million recently awarded by the Foundation through its Data Science Investigator Programme.

The grants are divided into the categories of Emerging Investigator, Ascending Investigator and Distinguished Investigator. The grants target research leaders at different career stages to support attractive career paths for talented specialists within data science.

The eight Data Science Investigator grant recipients in 2022

Emerging Investigator

  • Tibor Varga, Assistant Professor, University of Copenhagen: ALFADIAB – Algorithmic Fairness in Diabetes Prediction – DKK 10,000,000
  • Adam Hulman, Senior Researcher, Aarhus University: Integration of Longitudinal Multimodal Data in Clinical Risk Prediction Using Deep Learning – DKK 9,072,076

Ascending Investigator

  • Fernando Racimo, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen: A Simulation and Inference Toolbox for Spatiotemporal Genome Evolution – DKK 8,276,123
  • Mikkel Schmidt, Associate Professor, Technical University of Denmark, Kongens Lyngby: Bayesian Neural Networks for Molecular Discovery – DKK 9,698,184
  • Sisse Helle Njor, Associate Professor, Randers Regional Hospital and Aarhus University: Using Data Science to Estimate Overdiagnosis and Mortality Reduction in Cancer Screening Programmes – DKK 8,889,2338
  • Erin Gabriel, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen: Optimizing Medical Decision-making: Advancing and Refining Estimation and Evaluation of Personalized Treatment Rules – DKK 7,618,938
  • Hiren Joshi, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen: GolgiNet: Data Science to Take Glycomics in Silico and Beyond – DKK 10,000,000

Distinguished Investigator

  • Lars Kai Hansen, Professor, Technical University of Denmark, Kongens Lyngby: Cognitive Spaces – Next-generation Explainability – DKK 9,891,028

Read more about the eight projects here.

This is the third time the Foundation has awarded grants through the Data Science Investigator Programme, which is part of the Foundation’s Data Science Initiative.

The Initiative was launched in 2019 and aims to boost capacity within data science, including supporting the implementation of ambitious research programmes, establishing new national infrastructure, offering attractive career paths and educating and training more data science specialists.

Read more about the programme here.