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Moving to the University of Oxford with the Arthritis Therapy Acceleration Programme (A-TAP) will help accelerate the discovery of new treatments for inflammatory diseases.

Professor Christopher Buckley

Why not have the best sprinter, the best long jumper, the best javelin thrower and so on, all working together in one team? Surely that would be better than the one elite athlete trying to do it all themselves.

That’s the philosophy Professor Chris Buckley brings to the A-TAP programme and his recent full time move to the University of Oxford. A move that will bring greater collaboration and will build a team of experts that will help accelerate the discovery of new treatments.

For the past 4 years, Chris has led the Arthritis Therapy Acceleration Programme (A-TAP) spending half his time at the University of Birmingham, and the other half at Oxford. The £7M concept, funded by the Kennedy Trust for Rheumatology Research, also works with 7 NHS hospitals, located between Oxford and Birmingham which help recruit patients to clinical trials.

In September 2021, Chris moved full-time to the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at the University of Oxford as Director of Clinical Research. “We’ve tested A-TAP out, and shown that the concept works,” said Chris. “The question is now can we deliver the goods and work together to find a cure for inflammatory conditions of the joints?”

A-TAP takes a novel approach to finding treatments for a number of immune mediated inflammatory conditions. Instead of testing one drug for one disease, A-TAP uses a new type of trial design called basket trials. This innovative approach, pioneered in cancer, tests one drug across multiple diseases at the same time, all of which share the common feature of inflammation.

The idea behind A-TAP was fairly straightforward explained Chris: “We chose four inflammatory diseases where it is common to have an overlap of symptoms: rheumatoid arthritis, spondyloarthropathy, Sjögren’s disease, and inflammatory bowel disease.  Within these diseases a person might have inflammation of the salivary glands, another inflammation of the joints, and another the gut, but the prevailing theme is the inflammation.

“We wondered why, if these diseases share so much in common, are they not investigated in a common manner?

“Our goal was to explore the underlying cells present in tissues, not just blood, that cause inflammatory disease, then see if we could get industry involvement to use new drug targets in early phase clinical trials.

“In this way we could explore the similarities and differences between conditions, try to repurpose drugs across diseases, and ultimately bring the right treatment to the right patients as quickly as possible.”

The A-TAP approach has been successful to date. By coordinating the teams across the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford, A-TAP has been able to draw on different areas of expertise. “Birmingham looks at rheumatoid arthritis and Sjögren’s syndrome, while Oxford works on inflammatory bowel disease, and spondyloarthropathy. The teams complement each other, learn from each other, and explore how things could be done in a different way.”

While the University of Birmingham is now very embedded in A-TAP, Chris’s move to Oxford will help consolidate work being done across the two institutes (the Kennedy Institute for Rheumatology and the Botnar Institute for Musculoskeletal Sciences) at the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences (NDORMS), and more widely across the University

At the Kennedy Institute this means looking at the science at a very granular, single cell level to identify the cells that cause inflammation. This discovery science can then be translated into possible treatments whose effectiveness can be explored in clinical settings.

The Botnar Institute has a larger team focussed on experimental medicine, which takes these concepts and explores treatments and drugs through its clinical trials unit. The newly opened Oxford Experimental Medicine Clinical Research Facility will undertake early trials with smaller groups of patients to understand whether medicines should go into larger stage clinical studies.

Explaining his vision for broadening A-TAP’s reach Chris said: “Further afield in Oxford University, researchers are looking into inflammation across tissues. A-TAP already works closely with the Nuffield Department of Medicine (NDM). The hope is to expand further into new areas such as the Human Immunology Unit in the Radcliffe Department of Medicine.”

A-TAP has another 3 years of funding during which time Chris aims to make the Oxford ecosystem for translational inflammation research even more exciting and productive. “Individually we can't do everything, but if we work together across diseases, and across tissues, we can create a team that will be the ultimate winner in the fight against inflammatory disease.”