Scientists in the North East will spearhead multi-million pound efforts to find new treatments and a cure for rheumatoid arthritis.
Three pioneering research centres at Newcastle, Glasgow and Birmingham are being formed to analyse the science behind the crippling joint condition.
Specialists at Newcastle University will lead the project which has seen the three universities invest more than £4m in financial support for a £2.5m Arthritis Research UK Rheumatoid Arthritis Pathogenesis Centre of Excellence.
Last night, one of the country’s leading experts said arthritis was a “neglected” area of medicine that has suffered under-investment in comparison to cancers and heart diseases.
Medics anticipate that the aging population will spark soaring numbers of patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and an increased burden on the health service.
Prof John Isaacs, Newcastle University’s professor of clinical rheumatology and director of the Institute of Cellular Medicine, said: “It’s a neglected medicine in that it’s not a ‘sexy disease’ like cancer or heart disease but in a lot of ways it can have a more devastating effect on patients.
“Some cancers can be treated, but once you’ve got rheumatoid arthritis then you have it for the rest of your life. We think it’s curable with investment, but without that investment there’s not a lot we can do.
“Many people think it’s an old person’s disease but this is a disease that can affect children. One third of typical rheumatoid arthritis patients stop working within the first five years, not because they want to but because they can’t continue.
“It can also shorten your life because people with the disease suffer heart diseases and heart attacks more commonly than the rest of the population.
“Inevitably, we will see an increase in the number of people with rheumatoid arthritis because it starts strong and you never get rid of it.” The collaboration between the Universities of Glasgow, Newcastle and Birmingham, aims to address the unmet needs of the 400,000 people who suffer from the crippling joint condition.
Experts already know that rheumatoid arthritis is a serious, inflammatory, auto-immune condition that affects the joints and the body’s internal organs leading to chronic pain and fatigue. It occurs when the body’s immune system attacks itself.
Last night, Prof Isaacs said they believed patients may be suffering from the disease 10 years before they show the symptoms.
Although much of the research will be laboratory-based basic science, the ultimate aim of the centre will be to develop new therapies.
“We’re really excited about the opportunities this new centre brings, and the consequent collaboration between basic scientists, clinicians and industrial partners who all want to make a difference,” said Prof Isaacs.
“There is a massive unmet need for better treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. There is no cure and many people are still suffering. We now have a fantastic chance of doing something about it.”
He added: “There are some things about rheumatoid arthritis we understand. It’s a disease of the immune system and we’ve known that for quite a while.
“But we don’t really understand why it affects the joints and we don’t know why people don’t get better. We hope to understand the disease better and to find drugs to tackle it, but if you understand what causes it in the first place you can start to talk about cures.”
Prof Alan Silman, medical director of Arthritis Research UK, said: “Rheumatoid arthritis is a complicated disease particularly as it is a state where the body’s control of the immune system is lost, resulting in long-term inflammation in the joints.”
He said there are several possible research paths that need to be followed, adding: “This initiative brings together, under a single umbrella, internationally renowned groups from three universities in a co-ordinated approach to solving this major form of arthritis in our population.”