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Dr Alison McGregor

Alison McGregorDr Alison McGregor is a reader in biodynamics at Imperial College, London.

What does your work involve?

I'm part of the Human Performance Group within the Department of Biosurgery & Surgical Technology at Imperial College London. One of the group’s main research areas is the spine and its related diseases, including low back pain and sciatica. Our research extends from the normal population to those with back problems and elite athletes, which is a huge spectrum and means lots of variety. We're interested in how the spine functions in terms of how it moves during different daily tasks, how the muscles work and how the brain controls these muscles, not to mention how things like back pain and sciatica impact on this. We're now starting to use some of this information to direct management and hope that in the future this knowledge of what goes wrong will contribute more to a greater understanding of how back pain should be managed.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

Arthritis Research UK has been funding research into our group for the past 5 years, initially with a project grant investigating the wiring of the brain to the back muscles. Currently, Arthritis Research UK has funded a large clinical study, function after spinal treatment, exercise and rehabilitation (FASTER), which aims at determining the optimal post-operative management for people having spinal surgery.

What’s the most important thing you've found out in the past 12 months? Why?

A tough question as so many projects are in their formative stages. We have been establishing an MRI technique that may help us determine the structure of muscle in terms of fat and fibre content both of which we know are altered as a result of back pain. The hope is that we can use this to investigate how to change this structure, so watch this space!

What do you hope or expect to achieve as a result of your Arthritis Research UK funding?

The aim of our clinical trial is to find out what's the best way to manage people after spinal surgery so we can maximise their recovery and return to everyday tasks. Currently there's a lot of uncertainty and patients get limited and often conflicting advice on what they should and shouldn’t do. We hope to change this for both them and their consultants.

What do you do in a typical day?

There's so much variety, from overseeing the FASTER study and helping with recruitment to supervising other research projects, getting new ideas off the ground and not to mention other academic commitments like teaching and administration. The most consistent thing in my day is the need for a strong coffee mid-morning!

What's your greatest research achievement?

I'm hoping that completing the FASTER will be one of my greatest achievements. There have been lots of complications and problems on the way with surgeons leaving, centres dropping out and hospitals closing that have made it a real challenge. It's also taught me an awful lot about the pitfalls and challenges of running clinical trials. Hopefully the results will be rewarding and may lead to a change in clinical practice if our hypothesis is right!

Why did you choose to do this work?

I'm fascinated by how the body works and moves and how this can go wrong through either injury or disease, and I believe that an understanding of this can be used to manage patients more effectively and make their lives better. I think the constant challenge of research and how we always end up asking more questions than we answer keeps me motivated and interested in research. I don’t think all jobs offer this kind of challenge.

Do you ever think about how your work can help people with arthritis?

Of course. So much of what we do in our laboratories has the potential to help people with arthritis, although sometimes it must seem for them, as well as us, a long journey. FASTER is a good example; it started from a project we did almost 10 years ago which looked at how people did after spine surgery. Many patients were disappointed with their improvements after surgery and few saw a change in what they could do on a day-to-day basis. Of top of this, many patients taking part complained about the lack of post-operative care support they had, which made them very unsure about what they should and shouldn’t be doing. This was borne out by our survey of usual practice by surgeons and led to the development of an evidence-based patient information booklet, a rehabilitation programme and, of course, the clinical trial which has now been running for 2½ years.

What would you do if you weren’t a researcher?

I once thought professional sport would be great, but having worked closely with athletes I realise that not only do I not have the physiology but I don’t have the drive to push myself physically to the limits. However, having done a parabolic flight as part of our research, I’d love to be an astronaut; weightlessness was quite spectacular!

About Alison

I'm married to one of the GB international rowing coaches so rowing and sport play a large part in our lives. We both run and train regularly and have been known to do the odd half marathon. I'm also the DIY demon in the house when my husband is away on training camps!

This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Winter 2008, issue 139.

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Arthritis Research UK fund research into the cause, treatment and cure of arthritis. You can support Arthritis Research UK by volunteering, donating or visiting our shops.