Scientists hope to uncover genetic keys to treating bone diseases

Newcastle University is to lead an international research project to look at the genetic causes of bone diseases, including arthritis and osteoporosis

Michelle Oliver who has suffered with arthritis most of her life
Michelle Oliver who has suffered with arthritis most of her life

Scientists in the North East are leading a multi-million pound international study into the genetic causes of crippling bone diseases.

Experts at Newcastle University will be researching debilitating conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis in the hope of developing a breakthrough in treatments.

The European Commission has awarded more than £10m to the five year project, involving 18 partners across Europe, with the aim of improving patients’ quality of life.

The project will study the genetic causes of common and rare skeletal diseases, to understand how the disease develops, age-related changes and to deliver new disease biomarkers and identify targets for treatments.

Michael Briggs, professor of skeletal genetics at Newcastle University, is leading the SYBIL project. He said: “It is absolutely superb that Newcastle is a key part of the project as we have a strong tradition of research in human genetics.

“It is going to be a very difficult and complex study. Not only do we need to understand disease mechanisms, but we need to do so in a lot of different diseases.

“The novel thing about the study is that we are working as a large consortium and we are taking data from many different diseases, really maximising the potential of our research.

“It is bringing together a group of world-class scientists, systems biologists, disease modellers, information technologists and industrialists that will achieve critical mass to deliver the ambitious objectives of this programme of research.

“This project has great potential to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. If we can identify the genes and study the genetic processes that cause these diseases then we can think about developing treatments which could really help people.” Among the diseases that will be investigated is osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, which the World Health Organisation estimates affects 25% of adults aged over 65.

The team will also focus on osteoporosis, a disease in which the density of bones is reduced, leading to weakness and increased risk of fractures.

Michelle Oliver has lived most her life with arthritis and at the age of just eight was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, meaning she would suffer stiff, swollen joints and pain on a daily basis.

The 29-year-old marketing and business development officer, from Sunderland, said: “It’s brilliant that this research is being done into these conditions.

“The one main problem with arthritis is that we do not know why it develops or what brings it on.

“This research will open up a lot more opportunity to try to identify causes of the illness and develop better treatments.”

Another group of diseases which the researchers hope to help treat are rare skeletal diseases. There are more than 450 unique conditions that range in severity from relatively mild to those which can cause bones to be so brittle that they can break before birth.


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