Arthritis is a term that covers over 100 different diseases and is a one of the leading causes of pain and disability to North Americans. While we don’t yet have a cure, researchers are working hard to discover new treatments that will help alleviate suffering and improve quality of life. Drs. Claire Bombardier and Monique Gignac, co-scientific directors of the Canadian Arthritis Network), offer their views on arthritis research in Canada today.
Q. What new and exciting arthritis research is being done today?
Modern technologies now available to arthritis research make this a really exciting time. From gene-array screens, to computer-generated image modeling of how joints move and react and large national long-term population studies, never before have arthritis researchers been so empowered with research tools.
Some of these technologies are already beginning to have an impact in the clinic, including new biomaterials – essentially a material that is used and adapted for a medical application – and ways of using stem cells in joint repair. Recent discoveries are also making prediction and prevention strategies seem possible—and that has the potential to be really rewarding. The earlier arthritis is diagnosed and treatment begins, the better.
Q. What are some of the promising or new medicinal and therapeutic treatments?
Medicines based on molecules found naturally in the body (biologics) continue to be among the more exciting treatments in arthritis. As research uncovers more about how the disease works, we are learning how to make better biologics and how to use combinations of existing medicines more effectively. Arthritis has been an important testing ground for many modern biological medicines with applicability to other diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and obesity. Canadian biotechnology companies are also capitalizing on these discoveries, and some are bringing innovative joint repair materials into practice.
Q. What are some of the biggest challenges facing people with arthritis in Canada?
The big challenges, of course, are to find a cure for arthritis and to improve the quality of life for people living with arthritis. But part of addressing these challenges is dispelling myths, raising awareness and continuing to support the research that will find the cure and tell us how to manage the disease in the meantime. So, prioritizing and investing in research and development is the critical challenge.
Canada has made major advances over the past 10 years, both in creating new knowledge and in training new researchers, but there is still a lot to do. Support from the Canadian government for the Canadian Arthritis Network has helped to close that gap, but once that program ends in 2012, Canada will be faced with a major hole in its arthritis research funding support.
Q. How is Canada a leader in arthritis research?
Canada is a technological leader in medical research in general, and that has benefits for arthritis research. But what really stands out about the Canadian arthritis research community is how collaborative and transdisciplinary it has become.
We have a number of large-scale research projects in Canada that bring together scientists from various fields of study and economic sectors, including government and industry, and that also include people living with arthritis as advisors. These teams often represent organizations from across the country and increasingly partner with collaborators internationally. This transdisciplinary talent helps to make research more relevant to people living with arthritis and get it to the end user faster.
Q. In what ways can arthritis research impact Canadians who have arthritis?
Arthritis affects 4.2 million Canadians, 60 per cent of whom are under the age of 65 years, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s recently published Life with Arthritis in Canada – a Personal and Public Health Challenge. Many people are shocked to learn that I in 1,000 children has arthritis. If you ask anyone living with arthritis what their major concerns are, they are likely to tell you pain and fatigue. Canadian researchers have listened, and are making major contributions to measuring pain and fatigue associated with arthritis in order to identify which medications work best to inform physicians and make improvements.
Emerging exercise, education and self-management programs will also expand the therapeutic options for people living with arthritis.
Q. How is the Canadian Arthritis Network supporting research?
The Highly Qualified Consumer (HQC) Database is an initiative developed by the Canadian Arthritis Network’s Consumer Advisory Council (CAC). The CAC tries to guarantee that the patient/consumer perspective is represented on research related to arthritis, but there are not enough members to work with all of the arthritis research teams in Canada. Therefore, the CAC has launched the HQC Database to seek more volunteers who are willing to serve as advisors.
Working with consumer consultants or collaborators is beneficial to arthritis researchers and this model has been employed by the Canadian Arthritis Network since its inception. It is hoped that the database will attract a large number of consumers volunteering to participate in arthritis research. (The Canadian Arthritis Network has assured database participants that the HQC Database will not be used to solicit subjects for clinical trials or research.)