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Dr Wendy Thompson

Wendy ThomasDr Wendy Thomson is the deputy scientific director of the Arthritis Research UK epidemiology unit in Manchester and a reader in complex disease genetics.

What does your work involve?

I'm what's known as a 'basic scientist'; in other words I do mainly laboratory based research, although these days most of my time is spent at the computer rather than actually in the laboratory. The main focus of my research is the identification of the factors (genetic and environmental) involved in the development and outcome of childhood-onset arthritis.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

Virtually my entire research career. My first job was as an Arthritis Research UK-funded research assistant. I joined the Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Unit in Manchester in 1990 and the charity has continued to support my research ever since.

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

We're still not sure what causes arthritis in children or why some children do better than others in the long term, but we do know that genes play a role. Understanding which genes are involved will help us to predict what the outcome might be allowing the clinician to provide the best care possible for each child.

Over the last 12 months my group has identified many new genes that are important in childhood arthritis. We're now working hard to determine exactly what role they play in the disease.

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

Childhood arthritis is relatively rare but it can have a long-term impact on children and their families. We know that some children who develop arthritis will improve quickly with little or no treatment, while others will continue to have active disease into adulthood. We also know that response to treatment varies between individuals.

The hope is that, by learning more about what causes these differences in long-term outcome and treatment response, we'll be able to develop far more individualised clinical care, thus improving the lives of children with arthritis and their families.

What do you do in a typical day?

When I started out I spent most of my time in the laboratories conducting experiments. Now I spend most of my time in meetings; these can either be with individuals or small groups or with much larger groups, often involving collaborators from many different research groups across the UK. Within the meetings we may discuss research plans, the results of recent experiments or analysis or the writing of papers.

What's your greatest research achievement?

I'm most proud of establishing the Childhood Arthritis Prospective Study (CAPS). CAPS was set up in 2001 to study the short and long-term outcomes in children presenting with new onset arthritis. We collect data on current and past medical history and details of how severe the arthritis has been and of the treatments received. We've recruited over 1,000 children into this study (the largest study of its kind in the world) and many of them have now been followed up for over five years.

This study will help to improve our understanding of both the causes of and outcome in childhood arthritis and represents a unique opportunity to improve clinical care for children with this condition.

Why did you choose to do this work?

Shortly after joining the Arthritis Research UK Epidemiology Unit I became interested in arthritis in children. I've continued to work in this field ever since and am truly committed to understanding the causes of juvenile arthritis and to improving both the short and long-term outcome for children (and their families).

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

Every day. While I'm not a clinician and so don't have direct contact with patients on a day-to-day basis, I've worked in this field for a long time – just looking at the answers given on questionnaires regarding the effects of arthritis on children and their families provides me with tremendous insight into the impact this condition can have.

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

If I had to chose, I love to cook so maybe I would be a chef – probably one who experiments a lot with recipes.

About Wendy

Like many parents (my son is now 16 and has just completed his GCSEs), much of my spare time is spent with my family. I enjoy walking and cooking, and I've recently taken up playing tennis again.

This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Summer 2010, issue 149.

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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.