New Faculty Q&A: Kjetil Bjornevik

Bjornevik headshotJanuary 1, 2023 – We are delighted to welcome Kjetil Bjornevik as Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the start of this new year. Learn more about Bjornevik in the following Q&A:

What led you to epidemiology? What is it about the field that attracts you?

During my time in medical school, I became interested in epidemiology after participating in a clinical rotation in neurology where I encountered several patients with multiple sclerosis. Despite the availability of various treatments, many of these patients went on to experience disability at a relatively young age. This motivated me to get involved in research projects aimed at finding more effective treatments for MS. I therefore joined two research groups in Bergen, Norway, where I was a medical student, and began working on a project that explored environmental risk factors for the disease. I was particularly drawn to the use of epidemiological methods in this work and decided to pursue a career in epidemiology. During my PhD, I had the opportunity to spend 18 months as a visiting researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, working with Dr. Alberto Ascherio’s neuroepidemiology group. This experience further sparked my interest in epidemiological research and led me to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at the School after completing my PhD.

Can you tell us a little about your research background? How did you get started in your current field?

At the beginning of my research career, I focused on identifying risk factors and early signs of multiple sclerosis, with a particular interest in understanding the preclinical phase of the disease. We contributed with some of the first studies demonstrating that the initial disease processes begin several years before the first symptoms appear, which has important implications for both early disease detection and the study of the etiology of MS. In the years that followed, I broadened my research to encompass other neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. These diseases can be debilitating and fatal, and their causes are not yet fully understood. For several of these studies, I had the opportunity to work with the Harvard cohort studies, including the Nurses’ Health Studies and Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which provided valuable data for my research. One aspect of my research that I find particularly interesting is the integration of evidence from basic science experiments with data from large prospective epidemiological studies to identify novel treatment targets, as we have done in some of our Parkinson’s disease studies.

What questions/problems are you working on that you are most excited to explore?

I am currently working on several projects focused on the Epstein-Barr virus and MS that I am very excited about. These projects aim to identify the mechanisms by which the virus likely causes the disease, as well as to assess the effectiveness of antiviral drugs targeting EBV in slowing the progression of MS in patients. To achieve this, we are employing a variety of approaches, including genetic, epigenetic, and omics studies, as well as investigating novel biomarkers and conducting clinical trials. Our goal is to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how the interplay between EBV and the immune system causes multiple sclerosis.

In addition to the work on EBV and MS, I am also excited about upcoming projects that will explore the role of infections in Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, as well as studies on risk factors and predictors of disease progression. Another area of focus for me is the identification of novel biomarkers and risk factors for prodromal Parkinson’s disease. These projects aim to better characterize the earliest stages of PD, with the goal of enabling earlier detection and treatment of the disease. This work includes discovery studies of novel biomarkers, including in the omics and microbiome research fields.

What plans do you have for the first few years of your new role as assistant professor at the Harvard Chan School?

As an assistant professor at the Harvard Chan School, my primary goal is to establish a research group that will build on the work I am currently doing to better understand the underlying mechanisms that cause neurological diseases. I hope to use this knowledge to contribute to the development of more effective treatments and to identify novel biomarkers that can facilitate earlier detection of these conditions.

In addition to my research, I am particularly excited about the opportunity to work with students and postdocs who share my interest in neurological diseases. As a new faculty member, I am also looking forward to getting to know my colleagues and exploring opportunities for collaborations within the department and beyond.

Can you tell us one thing (e.g hobbies/interests) that colleagues may not know already about you?

I enjoy running, biking, swimming, and other outdoor activities, and I am also an avid meditator.

-Coppelia Liebenthal