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03 March 2022

King's researchers awarded funding to study persistent pain in inflammatory arthritis

The £3.9M award will be used to identify the drivers of pain in people living with rheumatoid arthritis.

Inflammatory arthritis

Professor Leonie Taams and Dr Franziska Denk from King’s College London, together with Professors David Bennett and Christopher Buckley from the University of Oxford, have secured a multimillion-pound Wellcome Collaborative Award for their study ‘Fibroblasts as key drivers of persistent pain in inflammatory arthritis’.

Many people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) live with pain every day, even when their inflammation is well-controlled through medication. Much research on how RA pain persists is focused on the brain sending faulty signals that are experienced as painful. However, another hypothesis is that pain is continually caused in patients’ joints by local cells called fibroblasts. Immunologists have shown that fibroblasts are hyperactive in arthritis and make factors that can interact with nerves, yet scientists lack detailed knowledge of the process and how it affects pain. The interdisciplinary team aims to address this gap.

I am absolutely delighted with the award of this collaborative grant. For many years, my lab has been researching the cellular and molecular mechanisms that drive inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis; through this collaboration with eminent pain biology and fibroblast experts we can now turn our attention in earnest to the factors that drive pain in rheumatoid arthritis. This research will address a major unmet need for people living with the disease who frequently tell us about the impact of pain on their lives.”

Professor Leonie Taams

The researchers intend to show that human fibroblasts can affect nerves negatively, identify which type of fibroblast is most important in this process and identify which fibroblast factors might make good painkillers.

Despite the spectacular success of new biologic therapies (such as anti-TNF) that suppress inflammation, such treatments do not adequately control pain which continues to remain an important issue for people with arthritis. In the past it was thought that inflammation and pain were coupled such that if inflammation was abolished then pain would be suppressed. Recent work has suggested that pain and inflammation are not always coupled and that drugs that target the cells that make up the structure of joints (fibroblasts) rather than immune cells may be more effective at treating joint pain.”

Christopher Buckley, Kennedy Professor of Translational Rheumatology, Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology

The four collaborators were inspired by their mutual research interests as well as by conversations with patients who live with rheumatoid arthritis.

I’m very grateful to the Wellcome Trust for recognising the importance of interdisciplinary research and for supporting our proposal. I look forward to working with our wonderful team, including our clinical partners and patient experts who have inspired us to develop this bid.”

Dr Franziska Denk

Professor David Bennett continued: 

Although treatments for rheumatoid arthritis have undoubtedly improved over the last two decades chronic pain remains a huge problem for those living with the disease. I look forward to working with my cross-disciplinary colleagues in Oxford and King’s College London in order to better understand and ultimately improve the management of such pain.”

David Bennett, Professor of Neurology and Neurobiology, Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences

The project follows on from several others initiated by Professor Taams, who was joined by Dr Denk and Professor Steve McMahon to establish the Wellcome Trust PhD programme Neuro-Immune Interactions in Health & Disease - which has just recruited its third cohort. They then developed this collaborative award with Professors Bennett and Buckley. While Steve McMahon passed away in October last year, the researchers have pledged to conduct this project in his honour and memory.

In this story

Leonie Taams

Head of the School of Immunology & Microbial Sciences

Franziska Denk

Reader in Neuroscience