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Professor Charlie Archer

Charlie ArcherCharlie Archer is professor of reparative biology and tissue engineering in the Connective Tissue and Biology Laboratories at Cardiff University.

What does your work involve?

My laboratory has a variety of interests. Mainly we're interested in the development of the skeleton and in particular the mechanisms of how joints form. However, over the last few years, we've been trying to apply the knowledge gained from our basic laboratory studies to clinical conditions. Specifically, we're interested in the biological repair of damaged joints and have identified specific stem cells that we think will prove very useful in clinical application.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

About 18 years.

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

We've found the existence of cells within adult and aged human articular cartilage that have the properties of stem cells. This discovery can lead to new ways of treating osteoarthritic lesions in large joints such as the knee. One technique used for healing defects in cartilage is to take some cartilage from the edge of the joint, take out the cells, grow them in tissue culture and then implant them back into the defect, where they'll make new cartilage. However, a major problem is that one can only grow the harvested cells for so long before they lose the ability to form cartilage when implanted back into the joint. This doesn’t happen with the stem cells, and they can be grown to produce tens of millions of cells and still make cartilage, thus facilitating the repair of much larger defects.

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

Our aim is to develop cartilage stem/progenitor cells for clinical use as indicated above. However, there are a number of regulatory laws being devised both in Europe and the USA that will ensure that cells implanted into patients have very stringent quality control measures to provide maximum protection for the patient, which is quite right. So, developing these new techniques will be a long-term project.

What do you do in a typical day?

My working day is seldom hum-drum as no matter how carefully you plan your day it's invariably highjacked by some issue or event that needs dealing with immediately. However, my job is increasingly bureaucratic as successive regulations either generated within the EU, UK or university come into operation. Unfortunately, this leaves less time for the exciting things such as science, which, after all, is what we're paid to do!

What's your greatest research achievement?

The discovery of stem/progenitor cells in articular cartilage. That said, we've spent a lot of time studying the mechanisms of how joints form in the embryo and during post-natal development. When we started this research 23 years ago, very little was known, but today we can say we understand a good deal and the discovery of the stem/progenitor cells was underpinned by these studies.

Why did you choose to do this work?

Ever since I was in the sixth form, I’ve always wanted to be a biological scientist. After graduating in zoology, I was going to pursue a career in marine zoology but realised that job opportunities were very limited. Even now I remain interested and have recently published a book chapter on the evolution of joints which included a lot about fish!

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

Of course, and as is apparent from the above we're in the process of translating our scientific discoveries towards the treatment of patients, which I hope, if it works, will be tremendously satisfying. But even science of the most fundamental nature is important and one never knows when such data can become clinically relevant.

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

A chef, but not of the celebrity variety!

About Charlie
I'm married with three children – two sons, aged 13 and 14, and a 10-year old daughter. Most of my spare time is taken up with DIY chores in the house (it was a bit dilapidated when we bought it) and in winter my Sunday mornings/afternoons are taken up as team ‘manager’ to the Aberdare under-15 side in which my elder son plays.

This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Spring 2007, issue 136.

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