Professor John Loughlin, Professor of Musculoskeletal Research
My group focuses on the genetic basis of diseases of the skeleton, and in particular the articulating joint disease osteoarthritis. This common disease is characterised by the loss of the thin cartilage layer that is at the ends of our bones. This cartilage allows our joints to rotate and to pivot smoothly. By identifying those genes that increase an individual’s risk of developing diseases such as osteoarthritis, we are able to uncover those biological processes in our body that are not performing optimally and we can then plan ways to lessen the negative effects, in order to benefit the patient.
Osteoarthritis is a very painful disease that leads to loss of function of the affected joint. This severely impacts on the patient’s quality of life and can also have secondary effects on life span; the patient is less inclined to use the joint, their daily physical activity decreases and they are subsequently at increased risk of succumbing to cardiovascular disease.
One of the main risk factors for osteoarthritis is age. In the absence of any clear cause (such as, for example, a severe sports-related joint injury) very few young people will develop the disease. Instead, osteoarthritis becomes common as you enter your 50s and this risk continues to increase as we grow older, but we are not sure why. It may be that we lose the capacity to maintain and repair our cartilage as we age. Some of the results from the genetic studies do support this, in that several of the genes that are associated with osteoarthritis are responsible for making proteins required for correct cartilage formation.
My group is based in the Institute of Genetic Medicine at the International Centre for Life, where we have very close collaborations with a number of other scientists, including Dr Louise Reynard, Dr Mauro Santibanez-Koref, Professor Heather Cordell and Professor David Young. We also have very close links with scientists working in the Institute of Cellular Medicine, the School of Mechanical and Systems Engineering, and the School of Computing Science, including Dr Catharien Hilkens, Professor Kenny Dalgarno and Dr Jaume Bacardit.
This highlights the multidisciplinary nature of our research. A lot of my group’s experiments involve studying patient tissues, and in this regard we are fortunate to have close and productive links with clinician-scientists who operate on osteoarthritis patients at the Newcastle upon Tyne hospitals, in particular Dr Kenny Rankin and Professor David Deehan. In the future I’m keen to develop closer links with the Institute of Health and Society to enhance our strategies for translating research, with the ultimate aim of improving the health of those with severe joint diseases.
I am a member of two national and three international consortia containing scientists, clinician-scientists and industry researchers working towards an improved understanding of the causes and treatments of osteoarthritis. These consortia are funded by UK charities, UK government agencies, the European Commission and by our industry partners. One of the consortia that I am particularly excited about is the MRC and Arthritis Research UK funded CIMA project (Centre for Integrated Musculoskeletal Ageing), involving researchers from Newcastle, Sheffield and Liverpool. In CIMA we investigate healthy as well as diseased joints; a novel approach that is yielding exciting discoveries. I am also the President of the Osteoarthritis Research Society International (OARSI); an organisation of over 1400 members researching the causes and treatments of the disease using a range of methodologies. OARSI has its own scientific journal, an annual congress and a number of other academic and health related activities.
Originally published on 3rd April 2017 on the Newcastle University Institute for Ageing webpage.