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Kennedy researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at the Botnar Research Centre, Oxford, and the Universities of Birmingham and Leeds, have been awarded strategic funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC) to map in detail the different types of cells that make up human joints.

Diseases of the joint are a leading cause of disability in the UK. Many joint diseases cannot be cured with existing therapies and there are very few – if any – treatments available to stimulate repair of damaged joint tissues. 

The new research led by the Kennedy Institute will characterise all cell types in healthy synovial joints in order to better understand what goes wrong in disease. These studies will extend current knowledge of disease genetics and facilitate the identification of new therapies by generating an understanding of the cellular basis of joint disease.

The funding for the project was secured by Professor Christopher Buckley, Director of Clinical Research at the Kennedy Institute, and is co-led by Dr Stephen Sansom and Professor Mark Coles. 

“Establishing the cellular basis for diseases is a major challenge for the 21st century so that pathogenic pathways and processes can be ascribed to the right cell in the right organ at the right time. While current therapeutic strategies target the causative pathway, they are ‘blind’ to the pathogenic cell involved. By combining clinicians, scientists, tissue imaging  and machine learning experts in our consortium we hope to solve the cell-number problem i.e. how many individual cell types make up a human joint”, says Chris Buckley.

Stephen, who leads the Computational and Single Cell Genomics Group at the Institute, adds: “by providing an essential reference map of the key components of healthy joints, this work will greatly help to accelerate our ongoing investigations of the cellular causes of arthritis”.

To deliver this ambitious programme of research, Chris, Mark and Steve will lead a multidisciplinary team spanning Oxford, Birmingham and Leeds, bringing together expertise in single cell analysis and imaging, with researchers who are specialists in the cell biology of joint tissues. 

The team have developed minimally invasive methods for extracting tissues from human joints, and through application of powerful genomic and imaging approaches, they can define and locate all types of cells present in key anatomical joint structures.

The researchers hope this approach may eventually lead to the identification of new therapeutic targets. Mark explains: “Building a 3D virtual map of cells and gene expression at single cell resolution will provide a technological leap forward and provide the basis to apply computer modelling to therapeutic design and development for joint disease, a major ambition for the Kennedy Institute.” 

The award is part of a £6.7M investment from the MRC to support 13 research projects across the UK that contribute to the Human Cell Atlas – a global initiative that aims to define and describe all cell types in the human body. 

Data generated through the Human Cell Atlas will be made accessible to researchers across the world through partnership with organisations including the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). 

The Kennedy Institute also contributes to the Human Cell Atlas as part of a Wellcome Trust-funded study to map cellular activity in key tissues during the development of inflammatory disease.