Dr Richard Aspden
Richard Aspden is professor of orthopaedic science at the University of Aberdeen.
What does your work involve?
My interests are in understanding the behaviour of the tissues that make up the skeleton and stop us falling apart, such as bone, cartilage and ligaments. By studying their normal behaviour we can then explore what happens when diseases, such as osteoarthritis or osteoporosis, cause them to fail. With others we're also studying how genetic changes can affect the mechanical properties of tissues and using imaging to develop new diagnostic techniques.
How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?
I was first supported by Arthritis Research UK as a postdoctoral fellow in the mid 1980s when I was studying the ligaments that help support the spine. After several years as a Medical Research Council senior fellow, I got my first Arthritis Research UK grant in 1996 to study bone structure in the hip using x-rays.
What's the most important thing you have found out in the past 12 months? Why?
We've been developing methods for measuring the shape of the hip and the quality of the bone from hip x-rays. Results of the first of two pilot studies using these methods showed that we can identify individuals who are at greatest risk of osteoporotic hip fracture. In the second we compared a group that developed osteoarthritis of the hip with a group that didn't and found that we could spot most of the osteoarthritis patients, and especially those that progressed most rapidly, before traditional clinical assessment could pick them up. In both patient groups this has enormous potential to identify people with early stages of disease.
What do you hope or expect to achieve as a result of your Arthritis Research UK funding?
Currently Arthritis Research UK is funding two areas of our research; one is trying to understand better the ways in which the hip joint carries the loads we place on it, the other is to learn about how cartilage reacts to traumatic injury, such as might happen in a fall or a car crash. Possible outcomes will be new ideas for hip replacements when the natural one fails.
In our other studies, we're trying to find out what happens when articular cartilage is injured. This is the gristle-like tissue that makes a smooth, slippery lining to the joints to enable them to move freely. When it's damaged it's very difficult to heal. We want to know if these cells can begin to repair the tissue, and if there's any way we can help those cells. Finding answers might help those people who end up with osteoarthritis several years after injuring their knee, for example.
What do you do in a typical day?
A typical day is spent organising the research group. This includes supervision of research students and staff, and a lot of writing e-mails, papers and, not least, grant applications to keep them in jobs! A day in the lab doing research myself is now a rare treat, but having a team is very satisfying; they do the day-to-day work and we can have lively discussions about ideas.
What's your greatest research achievement?
I think I've put forward a number of novel ideas that are still being tested, most recently a proposal that osteoarthritis may be a metabolic musculoskeletal disease in which obesity is an effect not a cause. Establishing this as a mainstream idea is a key objective before retirement!
Why did you choose to do this work?
As a child I'd always had an interest in things medical. However, as a teenager I got the bug for hard science and did a degree in physics. Afterwards I moved into biomedical research because I wanted to know how people, rather than the universe, were made!
Do you ever think about how your work can help people with arthritis?
Often! What drives me is the desire to understand a bit more about how our bodies work, and wouldn't it be wonderful to find a cure for osteoarthritis?
What would you do if you weren't a scientist?
Make beautiful furniture. I really enjoy making things out of wood, and fresh wood shavings smell quite different to the lab.
A lot of time is spent with my family; five children mean the taxi service is in great demand. I enjoy music, and playing occasionally in a ceilidh band and in the church worship band is great fun. In between times the current project is to renovate the kitchen in our farmhouse; though building kitchen units always takes longer than the head chef has allowed!
This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Summer 2005, issue 129.