Professor John Isaacs and his team have been awarded funding of £225,000 over three years to set up the Arthritis Research UK Experimental Arthritis Treatment Centre. They will test drugs for rheumatoid arthritis that are being studied for other conditions such as cancer, in small numbers of patients.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects nearly half a million people in the UK. It is a chronic, disabling condition in which the body's immune system attacks the joints. Although newer biologic treatments have made a huge difference to patients' lives, a proportion do not respond.
"We hope we can bring more treatment choices, in particular to test cancer drugs in patients with rheumatoid arthritis who have run out of options after trying all of the biologic drugs," explained Professor Isaacs, professor of clinical rheumatology at Institute of Cellular Medicine.
"At the other extreme, if we can find a treatment that 'switches off' arthritis, this could mean that patients with early disease only require a short-term treatment, after which they will not need to take drugs."
Being part of a trial
Professor Isaacs added that experimental medicine research could seem quite daunting to patients, as the treatments being tested were new and might not work, and the trials often involve a number of blood tests and other investigations.
"When patients become involved with research they generally benefit, regardless of the actual drug being tested. Because of this we feel it's very important for everyone to understand about research. Therefore we're also developing a programme of activities to provide better information to patients and their relatives, to help them to understand about research, and whether or not to become involved," he added.
The Newcastle researchers are working with pharmaceutical companies. "Often drug companies studying one disease can't afford to simultaneously test their drug in another condition such as arthritis, so we hope they will allow us to test their drugs for the, on our diseases," said Professor Isaacs. "If successful this will benefit the patient, the researchers, the company, the charity – and the economy – a win-win situation."
The new centre has already gained funding from the Medical Research Council to 're-purpose' a cancer drug called seliciclib being developed by Cyclacel Pharmaceuticals, a University of Dundee spin-out company.
Seliciclib has been evaluated to date in approximately 380 cancer patients and is currently being tested in combination with another Cyclacel drug in cancer patients with solid tumours.
Researchers hope to show that the treatment is safe and potentially effective. Initially they will treat patients who have had the condition for at least a year and who are already taking treatment but not responding well enough. If this research is successful then they will test the treatment in patients taking different treatments, at different stages of their illness.
Medical director of Arthritis Research UK Professor Alan Silman said: "There's a real need to do in-depth testing of the benefits and safety of new drugs in small numbers of patients before large scale trials can begin, and our new experimental arthritis treatment centres are providing the resources to study patients in these key first stage studies."