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Dr Frederique Ponchel

Frederique PonchelDr Frederique Ponchel, a senior academic fellow at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Leeds.

What does your work involve?

I'm a senior basic science research fellow at the Leeds Institute for Molecular Medicine in the musculoskeletal disease section. I'm mostly involved in translational research, taking studies from the clinics to the lab and back to patients, hopefully. At the beginning, I analysed the cells contained in the blood of patients with rheumatoid arthritis and discovered some abnormalities which could predict relapse in patients who achieved remission. Now we're using the disappearance of these abnormalities to monitor patients on biological therapies and establish how well controlled their disease can be. We're also hoping to define whether and when biological therapies could be safely withdrawn and predict the outcome of the drugs from the start of treatment.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

I joined the rheumatology research community in Leeds in 1998, working in the Molecular Medicine Unit. I was previously working in cancer research. In 1999, I applied for an Arthritis Research UK career development fellowship, which was renewed in 2003 and 2004 for a total of 5 years. Since then, I've been awarded project, equipment, clinical fellowship, and bridging and special purpose funds.

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

I think the most important thing for me is defining the immunological state of patients. This definition is essential to establish what's happening early in the disease and how this could be exploited to classify patients with higher risk, to select patients who would benefit most from receiving biological therapies early to prevent fast and severe disease progression. This immunological profiling of patients is an integral part of the current departmental research effort that includes imaging, genetics and biomarkers.

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

I'll consolidate my current data about these abnormal cells and predict risk and outcome. My other current Arthritis Research UK funding relates to the role of interleukin-7 (IL-7) in the development of early rheumatoid arthritis. This cytokine is important in supporting the abnormal survival of cells in the synovial tissue and promoting bone damages. IL-7 is also recognised as a promising target for cytokine blockade.

What do you do in a typical day?

Nowadays I'm mostly desk-based. Over the next 12 months, my group, the Molecular Mechanisms of Immune Mediated Inflammatory Disease, will be composed of three postdocs (Sarah, Liz and Vincent), two research technicians (Rekha and Rich), an MD student (Benazir) and a clinical PhD (Ed). Sarah works on IL-7, Vincent and Liz are involved in synovial tissue studies, Rekha and Rich work on the immunological profiling, Benazir on clinical remission and Ed on rituximab. I spend my days trying to catch up with them, discussing data, analysing some of it myself and taking the work forward with them. Writing grants and papers also takes a lot of my time.

What's your greatest research achievement?

I think there are two main discoveries I'm very proud of; first, the abnormal blood cells and second, the role of IL-7 in rheumatoid arthritis. I was involved from the beginning in these discoveries and have been extremely lucky in being given the freedom to pursue them. In science, this doesn't happen very often, and after 11 years I can now see the fruits of this research benefiting patients.

Why did you choose to do this work?

As a teenager in France I wanted to do biomarine research and be Jacques Cousteau. Instead I did a molecular and cellular biology BSc and molecular genetics masters. I started my PhD in 1991 in fundamental oncology. Far from marine biology, but with no regrets.

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

Yes, I do. However, as a scientist, I don’t really talk to patients. There's one thing I'll never forget, however. A 24-year-old patient with rheumatoid arthritis said to me once that thanks to this therapy, she had felt human for 9 months in her life, despite relapsing. This is the sort of things that drives me.

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

Cooking is my second passion. My friends, however, tell me that after a week in a restaurant I'd hate cooking for the rest of my life. Of course, I'm also a mum, going though teenager antics just now, so I'm busy, but I wouldn't change my life.

About Frederique

I have two boys, 10 and 14. I love to play tennis but my knees like it much less than me. I travel a lot for work and I enjoy visiting places during these times. I grew up in seven countries so I'm fond of different cultures. I'm dreaming of visiting Japan and south East Asia one day…

This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Autumn 2008, issue 141.

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