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Dr Ulrich Hansen

Ulrich HansenDr Ulrich Hansen is a senior lecturer in orthopaedic biomechanics at Imperial College.

What does your work involve?

I'm part of the Biomechanics Group within the mechanical engineering department at Imperial College London. Our work is primarily focussed on the study of human joints. This relates to injuries such as torn ligaments or broken bones and diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Our work is aimed at developing better orthopaedic surgical procedures and new implants to help the patients suffering from any of these conditions.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

Arthritis Research UK has funded my work related to patients with severe shoulder pain since 2004. Their pain is so severe that they require a shoulder replacement. Unfortunately shoulder replacements aren't very successful. The Arthritis Research UK-funded research is aimed at providing a better understanding of the mechanics of the shoulder joint and to develop more successful implants.

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

We developed a method that very clearly visualised the bone immediately adjacent to the shoulder implant in patients. This is a great help for the surgeon when deciding whether to revise an implant, and several major hospitals have already changed their treatment accordingly. This new ability also provides a powerful tool for investigating a host of research questions addressing better surgeries or designing new implants.

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

Relatively many shoulder implants come loose and fixing them is difficult and requires a complicated operation. Our work is aimed at ensuring that these implants don't come loose. Furthermore, better implants will mean that more patients will benefit from shoulder replacements. Currently, many patients are denied an implant because the surgeon is concerned about their relatively poor performance.

What do you do in a typical day?

Discussing with research students, writing up research, identifying new research questions and planning proposals takes up the biggest part. I do a fair amount of teaching as well. Research is exciting but can be frustrating...the experiments didn't go as expected, they took too long or there was some obstructive administrative huddle. Teaching presents a peaceful side to my day where everything is known.

What's your greatest research achievement?

This is a tough question as several of my PhD students have all made important findings. Perhaps I’m particularly proud of the finding that a treatment of the shoulder implant meant that it took 10 times longer before the implant came loose. These were laboratory results, but if this translates into the same improvement in patients it would mean the implant wouldn't come loose in the lifetime of the patient.

Why did you choose to do this work?

My background is mechanics related to aeroplanes. Life directed me into medically related mechanics. I tore my knee ligaments playing football and got into discussions with the surgeon who was repairing my knee. I realised better mechanics were needed. My second motivation was my dad developing arthritis and a feeling of wanting to do something about it – this is still on my mind whenever I think of what I’m doing and where I want to go.

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

Of course. This is what drives our work. Sometimes it can seem like a long journey for the individual researcher and patient. Ten years is a long time for the individual but usually not enough to make or feel any dramatic difference. However, I think research needs to be viewed over longer periods – who'd want to be operated on using only techniques available 100 years ago (or fly their planes)?

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

Once it was football but today I could dream of being a National Geographic photographer. I'm just a tad bit jealous of Attenborough. More realistically I'd be a clinician doing much the same as I do today or in frontline treatment of patients – joining organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières has always appealed to me.

About Ulrich

I have a boy (9) and a girl (11). They take most of my time but we all enjoy doing my other favourite pastimes, sports and travelling. We also work on a medical science project initiated by thinking outside the box in a way only children can. Believe me, if successful, I'll have no doubt what my (our) greatest research achievement is.

This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Autumn 2010, issue 150.

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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.