The MRC Programme Grant will allow the researchers to tease apart the different types of fibroblasts present in healthy joints and during the onset and worsening of rheumatoid arthritis. The team believe these cells may hold the key to developing more effective therapies to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic inflammatory diseases.
Fibroblasts are cells that provide structural support and perform many other vital functions to keep tissues throughout the body healthy. However, these cells are thought to go rogue in rheumatoid arthritis, contributing to joint inflammation and tissue damage.
Professor Chris Buckley, Director of Clinical Research at the Kennedy Institute, says: "If we compare fibroblasts to soil, our research has shown that not all soil is the same. Just as there are different layers of soil in our gardens – top soil and subsoil – there are different types of fibroblasts in our joints – and each layer seems to be associated with a different type of arthritis."
The new funding will allow the team to examine in more detail the types of fibroblasts found in different locations of the joint. By understanding the make-up of these cells, the researchers can develop approaches to interfere with certain types of fibroblasts to uncover their influence on disease.
Chris explains: "Two recent technical and clinical advances have made this project possible: minimally invasive biopsies and single-cell sequencing. These two developments have allow us to investigate fibroblast cells and their location in the joint as never before, ultimately identifying and describing the biology of distinct subsets of fibroblasts responsible for mediating either inflammation or cartilage/bone damage in arthritis."
The research team also includes Dr Andrew Filer at the University of Birmingham, who leads the Birmingham Early Arthritis Clinic to assess biological changes in the joints of rheumatoid arthritis patients at the point of diagnosis and over time. By studying patient tissue samples, the team hope to rapidly translate their work from bench to bedside ultimately driving new therapies into the clinic.