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Professor Anne Neville

Anne NevilleAnne Neville is professor of tribology and surface at the University of Leeds’ school of mechanical engineering.

What does your work involve?

My work involves research into corrosion; this is when metals degrade in a conducting solution. Corrosion is an important process in many industrial sectors such as oil and gas recovery, power generation and automotive. In artificial hip joints there's a potential for metal components to corrode when the components rub and are in contact with the synovial fluid. Our work in Leeds focuses on trying to understand the process and rates.

This is becoming increasingly relevant to patients as metal-on-metal (MoM) hip joint replacements are implanted and concerns about metal-ion release are being reported in the press as to whether there are any possible biological effects or contamination of the body through absorption of metals from the implant.

The work involves developing some fairly sophisticated apparatus to enable us to measure corrosion processes in hip simulators in real time, and also we analyse surfaces with very high resolution microscopes to understand what's happening on a very small scale at the surfaces. It's processes occurring on those surfaces that determine the overall life of a hip joint replacement.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

For the last three years.

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

We've found many important aspects of corrosion in joint replacements, all of which are very timely given the current debate on metal-on-metal systems. We were the first group to be able to monitor corrosion in a hip joint simulator and this has enabled us to understand corrosion processes in a way that wasn't possible before this advance.

We've found that contact between ball and socket can significantly accelerate corrosion (called biotribocorrosion) and that proteins in synovial fluid can protect the surfaces by forming a very thin reacted layer.

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

Our recent Arthritis Research UK funding has just ended in 2010 and we're applying for follow-on funding to completely understand the link between corrosion, debris production and ion release.

We have for the first time been able to attribute metal ion release to different processes at the ball/socket interface when they're in relative motion and from the dissolution of the tiny wear particles that are produced. We're hoping that through follow-on funding we can exploit this new instrumented hip simulator to fully understand all corrosion processes occurring at the ball/socket interface.

We expect to be able to suggest modifications to material surfaces to reduce damage and also ion release with the ultimate goal being to increase the life and reliability of MoM joint replacements.

What do you do in a typical day?

I manage a big research group of around 30 people, and so most of my days are spent looking at results from experimental studies and directing students and postdoctoral researchers. I spend time early in the morning and late at night writing, when it's quiet.

What's your greatest research achievement?

To succeed in developing graduates into competent and innovative researchers. From a technical perspective, the greatest achievement has been to instrument a hip simulator in our lab to enable measurements of corrosion to be monitored as the movement occurs. This is the first time this has been done and it's significantly increased our ability to understand corrosion processes.

Why did you choose to do this work?

I got into this work through my corrosion work aligned with the oil and gas sector – a strange route. The issues surrounding the use of MoM hip replacements are highly relevant in the management of arthritis and it's good to know that the interesting underpinning science is driving a solution to a very important medical issue.

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

Yes, this is what drives the work – to provide an understanding and to reduce the 'scare stories' associated with some types of artificial joints.

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

Depends; if I was rich and didn’t need to work, I'd spend my time on the Isle of Mull taking in scenery and walking on the beaches. If I had to have another career, I'd be a social worker.

About Anne

As above – hill walking and enjoying the West of Scotland. I have a daughter, Rachel, who's almost five and so most of my free time is spent with her and my husband, Mark.

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

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