Dr Chris Murphy
Dr Chris Murphy is the head of cartilage biology and repair at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in Oxford.
What does your work involve?
I am interested in how the cartilage, which lines our bone ends, functions. Since the tissue has no blood supply it is continuously in a low oxygen (i.e. hypoxic) environment. Hypoxia is normally seen as a bad guy since it’s implicated in conditions such as stroke and peripheral vascular disease. However, we’ve found that hypoxia actually promotes cartilage function by providing a protective cushion, allowing weight-bearing and near friction-free movement of the bones in our joints. In my lab we take bits of isolated cartilage and study the cell and molecular details of how it functions.
How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?
One way or another Arthritis Research UK has been funding my work for the past 11 years, that is, since I joined the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology. I currently have two different projects backed by the charity.
What’s the most important thing you have found out in the past 12 months? And why?
We have discovered an important new regulator in cartilage called microRNA-145. This small molecule is naturally produced in cartilage and blocks the production of new tissue. Its levels appear to be increased in osteoarthritis and we’re currently investigating whether blocking this microRNA can aid joint repair in ananimal model of disease by increasing production of new tissue.
What do you hope or expect to achieve as a result of your Arthritis Research UK funding?
I study cartilage and try to uncover the details of how it functions, so the more we know about a particular biological pathway the better we can develop a potentially effective therapy, which, just as critically, has minimal side-effects.
What do you do in a typical day?
I arrive at work early in the morning as it gives me a couple of hours’ uninterrupted time. That I normally use for reading the scientific literature and sometimes writing (journal papers or grants). While it’s very important to keep up to date with the literature it’s also vital for me to have this quiet time to give myself space to think creatively. That’s an important but often unacknowledged part of the job. I supervise PhD students and postdoctoral researchers working on various cartilage-related projects. The best days are when we can bounce ideas off each other and something new emerges from that interaction, or when one of my team brings me a novel or unexpected experimental result.
What is your greatest research achievement?
Discovering that hypoxia, rather than being a stress factor in cartilage, actually promotes its normal function. It’s a paradoxical finding as we’re trained to think that lack of blood supply leading to hypoxia is a danger signal, as indeed it seems to be in most tissues. The deeper my research digs, the more I realise how much remains to be unearthed, and I have to agree with old Socrates when he said: “one thing only I know and that is that I know nothing”.
Why did you choose to do this work?
I’ve always been fascinated by science – both biology and physics. My PhD was actually on cardiovascular biology, but I then switched to cartilage as I thought it was relatively simple – a tissue with just a single cell type and no nerves or blood supply to complicate matters – how difficult could it be? Well, I’m a little older and wiser now and appreciate just how wondrously complex a bit of gristle really is!
Do you ever think about how your work can help people with arthritis?
This is the ultimate goal of my work and thus it’s always figural in my mind. We recently had a patient awareness day in Oxford for osteoarthritis suffers as part of our Arthritis Research UK-funded centre of excellence activities. It was a big success and I think it’s very important for us researchers to engage with the public in this way – to explain our work and to get the views of those who actually suffer with this disease.
What would you do if you weren’t a researcher?
I love most sports and always fancied myself as a footballer. In the end I settled on football as a hobby and my other hobby, science, as a career.
I read a lot, mostly science and psychology books. My football days are behind me – excluding one-on-ones in the back garden with the kids – but I do love walking, rambling and scrambling in the great outdoors.