Statisticians requested in medicine

​Staffan Nilsson has been working with medical statistics a long time. Today he is employed half-time at the Department of Mathematical Sciences and half-time at the Sahlgrenska Academy.

Staffan Nilsson– Being a statistician is, contrary to what many people believe, a very social profession. To be able to do a good job, a good contact with the experts in the field where the statistics are to be applied is needed, which requires social competence and that the prestige can be put aside.

Staffan has been involved in countless medical research projects during the years and has co-authored 200 articles. In the projects, he is often co-supervisor of a PhD student from the Sahlgrenska Academy. Right now he is completing a major work on meta-analyses of SSRI antidepressant drugs. The value of these drugs has been strongly questioned from some quarters, and together with Elias Eriksson and Fredrik Hieronymus at the Department of Pharmacology, Staffan has made a thorough review of the medicines’ effectiveness. The conclusion is that they are better than what has been previously thought.

A recently started project is about retina disease as a result of premature birth. The eye develops late and premature babies risk becoming blind, the project is about being able to predict as well as possible which children will need treatment. Here, Staffan supervises a statistician, Aldina Pivodic, together with Ann Hellström at the Queen Silvia Children’s Hospital. They use methods for survival statistics developed by Anders Odén, who defended his PhD thesis at the Department of Mathematical Sciences in 1977, and the project also includes a thorough documentation of these methods.

Genetics, new and hot in the 90s

When Staffan at the age of 40 switched from being a computer consultant to a PhD student in mathematical statistics, the idea to work with medical applications one day was already there, his wife and several of his friends are doctors. Yet it was a coincidence that Jan Wahlström, professor of clinical genetics, contacted Mathematical Sciences at that time, and that Staffan’s PhD project came to be about genetics. After that, the collaboration with Sahlgrenska has just continued.

– An early highlight was to be involved as an expert in the parliamentary inquiry in genetic integrity that was made at the time, I was there as a counterweight to the insurance companies, and it was very fun and different.

During the Wallenberg initiative Swegene between the years 2003 and 2007 Staffan was the director of the division Bioinformatics, and that together with being responsible for the statistics education for the PhD students at Sahlgrenska during many years has been the basis for a large contact network. When the Swegene initiative ended many people wanted to continue the collaboration, which formed the basis of an agreement between the departments for ten years, replaced by today’s 50/50 employment a few years ago.

Staffan Nilsson, Martina Olsson Lindvall, Sofia KlassonThe need for statisticians is great

– I have enjoyed these years very much, I like to work with people and I am no good at saying no. I have worked with genetics studies of celiac disease, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, stroke, breast cancer, colon cancer, neuroblastoma etc., but also with HIV and other infectious diseases. In recent years, I have also been involved in several projects related to premature childbirth where we sometimes use registry data. It is this variation, from large registry studies to small experimental experiments with cell lines, that is so appealing.

Staffan is often asked questions like “do you have any statistician who could work in my project?”. Although there are already many statisticians at Sahlgrenska today, the need is even greater. A new course starts this autumn where statistical students study together with PhD students at Sahlgrenska, all with a project that includes the need for knowledge in statistics. The course is called Logistic regression and survival analysis, but the idea could be applied to several courses according to Staffan.

– It is important to get the possibility to try the reality during the education, that the statisticians meet practical problems and future customers. In Gothenburg there are pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies and a large medical faculty, and many of those who will work with statistics in this city will end up in the medical sphere.

Text and portrait photo: Setta Aspström
Photo: Ewa-Lotta Kärrstedt. Staffan Nilsson collaborates with Martina Olsson Lindvall and Sofia Klasson in a project about stroke.

Page manager Published: Fri 02 Aug 2019.