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April 27, 2021

Student-led research yields important discovery about clinical stroke trials

Recent study about underrepresentation of women in stroke trials is published in prestigious medical journal.

Two Michigan State University students — one an undergraduate, the other in her second year of medical school — analyzed a decade’s worth of stroke studies and found a glaring flaw: Women patients were significantly underrepresented.

That two students made such an important finding is impressive enough. Even more is that their study was published in JAMA Neurology, a prestigious journal of the American Medical Association.

“I would say it hasn’t quite sunk in with me yet,” said Brent Strong, an Honors College senior majoring in physiology in the College of Natural Science who is lead author on the study. His co-author, second-year College of Human Medicine student Julia Pudar, called the study’s acceptance by JAMA Neurology “a huge honor.”

“It was quite a bit of work, but it was so rewarding. Honestly, I had so much fun doing this,” Pudar said.

Mathew Reeves, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, suggested the two team up to study whether women stroke patients were under-enrolled in randomized, controlled trials of stroke treatments.

Their meta-analysis of 115 studies conducted all over the world — including in the United States, Canada, Asia and Europe — found that relative to their numbers among stroke patients in the general population, women were underrepresented by five percentage points. One significant reason, they found, is that many studies used an upper age limit of 80 years, which excluded many women because they tend to suffer strokes an average of five years later than men.

By excluding stroke patients over age 80, the studies “undermined the generalizability of their findings,” Strong said. “Hopefully, this at least engenders an awareness of the issue.”

“If enough women aren’t being enrolled in the trials, how can we be sure of how the treatments are going to affect them?” Pudar asked. She added that “it’s an honor that the work we’ve done is going out into the world and hopefully will have an impact.”

Due to the pandemic, Pudar and Strong met only once in person, instead conferring frequently online with Zoom, communicating by email and sharing drafts through Dropbox.

Before enrolling in medical school, Pudar earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science and biomedical engineering. “Ultimately, I decided I like working with people more than with computers,” she said, although her experience allowed her to write a program to assist in extracting data from the studies they analyzed. In the fall, she will begin her third year of medical school at the Southeast Michigan campus in Southfield.

Strong, awarded a highly competitive Marshall Scholarship, will begin graduate studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland followed by further studies at the University of Edinburgh. He plans to work toward graduate degrees in statistics and population health sciences.

“Right now,” he said, “my thought is to become an epidemiologist doing what Dr. Reeves does.”

Having their paper published in such a prestigious medical journal is a remarkable achievement for the two students, Reeves said.

 “It’s really exciting to me to see young people come onto a research team who want to learn and get ahead,” he said. “Both of these students are unbelievably competent. I’m awestruck at how good they are.”

While Reeves is listed as a co-author, he said most of the credit goes to Strong and Pudar.

“I just guided them,” he said.

By: Pat Shellenbarger

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