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Dr Philip Helliwell

Philip HelliwellDr Philip Helliwell is a senior lecturer in rheumatology at Chapel Allerton Hospital in Leeds and a consultant rheumatologist at St Luke’s Hospital in Bradford. He has also been Arthritis Today’s resident doctor for many years.

What does your work involve?

I'm foremost a clinician. This occupies about half my time. The other half is divided between clinical research and teaching.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

I've been supported by the charity, with grants and other support, for the last 25 years. My first Arthritis Research UK grant came from the then Arthritis Research Campaign as a clinical research fellowship in 1985. Since then, my grants have covered both clinical and bio-engineering studies in psoriatic arthritis and foot disorders. In the last few years I've also received funding for educational projects which have supported the diploma in musculoskeletal medicine and rheumatology for GPs that we organise with Bradford University.

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

That’s a hard one. Patients add a whole new dimension to research and as a colleague said at a meeting in Borneo last year, 'you’re bonkers if you don’t involve your patients in your research'. The outlook of consumers, surprisingly, isn't very different from medics and it's useful to see the approach to research from their point of view. Certainly, patients’ priorities are very different from the doctors’. Apart from that, I'd really liked to have said that I'd found a cure for arthritis but that will have to wait until you ask me to do this piece again in a few years’ time.

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

The charity is currently funding a number of my projects. The main one, the TICOPA (Tight Control in Psoriatic Arthritis) study is the first study to examine different ways of treating psoriatic arthritis with drug therapy. A few years ago a similar study in rheumatoid arthritis found that a more aggressive approach to treatment gave better results and it's hoped we can show the same in psoriatic arthritis. We don’t have much in the way of evidence for the benefit of conventional drugs (such as methotrexate and sulfasalazine) in this disease but the TICOPA study seems to be getting good results with these drugs alone, without having recourse to anti-TNF drugs. It should be completed this year.

What do you do in a typical day?

I'm out of bed at 5:15 am with exercise in mind! I run or cycle to and from work. This helps clear my head after a hard day at the office. A clinical day will consist of outpatients, seeing patients on the ward and lots and lots of paperwork. I may argue with an administrator or two, discuss cases with colleagues and harangue the junior staff. On research days there are always plenty of meetings and the research clinic. If I can, I'll fit a run in at lunchtime, but this is becoming a rare event. It used to be said that working with me 'seriously improved the health' as successive PhD students were taken out for exercise at lunchtimes.

What's your greatest research achievement?

From a bioengineering point of view, my work on joint stiffness (which took 5 years and gave me both an MD and a PhD) was my best work, but I find it's largely forgotten now. However, being able to measure the very symptom the patient complained of was a revelation to me and them. It’s a pity we couldn’t do the same for pain. From a clinical point of view, setting up the large international study to develop new criteria for psoriatic arthritis was a landmark in this.

Why did you choose to do this work?

I was mentored by Verna Wright, formerly Arthritis Research Campaign professor of rheumatology in Leeds. His main research interests were bioengineering and psoriatic arthritis, and he passed his enthusiasm on to me. I worked briefly for him in the early 1970s and then returned to his department in 1985 when general practice lost its allure.

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

Well we now have patient representatives who keep us focused on this.

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

I'd have liked to have made a profession out of sport but am/was nowhere near good enough for that. The idea of writing appeals to me – they say there's a good book in everyone. My mother-in-law made a successful career as a novelist after retiring so there's still hope for me. The trouble is I don’t want to retire.

About Philip

The garage is full of woodworking equipment just waiting to be used. Alongside this equipment are about eight bicycles also waiting for me to get on them. The two don’t mix, in a mechanical maintenance sort of way, so both lay idle. If my body lets me, I get out on the hills with studded shoes and scant clothing. Opera, especially Wagner, catches my mood.

This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Summer 2011, issue 153.

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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.