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Dr Graham Riley

Graham RileyDr Graham Riley is the head of the soft tissue research group at the rheumatology research unit at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge.

What does your work involve?

My research is about painful conditions that affect tendons, ligaments and other 'soft' tissues of the joint. I'm trying to understand what causes tendon pain and why some tendons become weak and rupture. Orthopaedic surgeons provide tissue specimens, mostly from patients with chronic tendon problems. We mainly collect tendons from the ankle, for example the Achilles. My group studies the structure and composition of the tendon, and we try to understand how and why the tissue is altered in tendon disease. We grow human tendon cells in culture, and conduct experiments to find out how these cells respond to added factors such as drugs and mechanical strain.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

I was first funded by Arthritis Research UK on a project grant in 1988, and since then I've been awarded a number of project and equipment grants. I've currently got two Arthritis Research UK project grants and received an equipment grant in the last funding round.

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

Our most important recent finding has been the identification of two enzymes which are increased in painful tendons and may be associated with tendon disease. There are many enzymes which are capable of breaking down joint tissues, and the enzymes which cause disease are candidate targets for drug therapy in arthritis. The problem is that some enzymes are important for the health of the tendon, and drugs that affect the activity of these 'good' enzymes can cause tendon pain or even rupture. In our study, recently accepted for publication in Arthritis and Rheumatism, we compared the levels of expression of almost 50 different enzymes. This information will lay the foundation for more directed studies targeting specific enzymes and their role in tendon health and disease.

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

I've always tried to work closely with clinicians, believing that it's important to relate basic science to real clinical problems. Of course, our major long-term aim is to identify new drug targets, or at least improve the management of chronic tendon conditions. At the very least I hope to increase awareness of the importance of soft tissue rheumatology, and to demonstrate that the tendon is an interesting and rewarding subject for clinical and laboratory research.

What is your greatest research achievement?

I think our current work is the most exciting, since it has led us into completely new areas of research that eventually may have a therapeutic impact in the clinic. Otherwise, I'm pleased to have published a number of basic science studies, each of which has contributed in some small way to the scientific understanding of chronic tendon problems. When I started researching tendons, relatively little was known about the biochemistry of the disease, and few people were interested. Now there are more tendon researchers, many of them based in the UK, investigating different aspects of tendon biology. I hope that at least some of my work has excited interest and laid the foundation for others to make really big discoveries!

What do you do in a typical day?

A typical day, if there is such a thing, consists of much reading, writing and thinking. I might have to review a grant or paper, and we usually have one or two manuscripts in preparation and a grant deadline to meet. Some of the day will be spent reviewing the latest data and planning new experiments. I'm currently organising a large research symposium to be held in Cambridge in the spring, and that requires a bit of attention most days.

Why did you choose to do this work?

I worked on muscle, bone marrow and nematode parasites before I finally became involved in rheumatology research. I was attracted by the opportunity to work with a team of clinicians and scientists on a problem that affected a great number of people but was relatively under-researched.

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

Yes, often. Although I'm not a clinician, many patients visit the research unit, and I've seen and experienced the debilitating affects of arthritis on friends and family.

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

It's so long since I did anything else that I'm stuck for an answer. Perhaps a professional sport fisherman with my own boat, somewhere in the Caribbean!

About Graham

In my spare time I enjoy walking – I have a field spaniel that needs lots of exercise – and every so often I go fishing. Once I used to play a lot of squash, run and go to the gym, but now I spend more time watching sport rather than participating. It doesn't help that I've damaged ligaments in my knee, which adds a personal dimension to my research!

This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Spring 2006, issue 132.

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