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Professor Drew Rowan

Drew RowanDrew Rowan is professor of molecular rheumatology in the Musculoskeletal Research Group at Newcastle University’s Institute of Cellular Medicine

What does your work involve?

Articular cartilage allows our joints to move freely and acts as a shock absorber. Unlike most tissues, cartilage is made up of many proteins and few cells. One component, collagen, is perhaps the most important since when this molecule is broken down, the joint becomes irreversibly damaged. I've spent most of my career investigating specialised enzymes called proteinases that break down molecules like collagen in diseased cartilage. My group is trying to work out which are the key proteinases and how they work together in order to destroy the complex structure of cartilage. We're able to make cartilage break down in the lab and use this as a model for what happens in arthritic joints. Modern molecular techniques now enable us to study these complicated events, making research today more exciting than ever, and we're beginning to really better understand what some of the key players are at the molecular level that promote cartilage breakdown in disease. Our next challenge is to translate these findings into better drugs for patients.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

My lectureship at Newcastle in 1996 was originally Arthritis Research UK-funded and I've been fortunate to have had continual Arthritis Research UK funding since.

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

Perhaps our most important and exciting finding has been in osteoarthritis. Most proteinases are made as inactive enzymes which need ‘switching on’ (called activation) by other proteinases. We've recently identified an enzyme that's more abundant in diseased cartilage, that doesn't need activating itself and that can activate other proteinases, and targeting this particular proteinase could block tissue breakdown. We're busy exploring this exciting finding further as this could potentially lead to new treatments.

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

I hope to help find a cure but realistically I expect that my work, like most researchers, will lead to a much more detailed understanding of the processes that occur during disease. I firmly believe that this information will generate new drugs that'll increase the treatment options available for clinicians to help better manage patient disease.

What do you do in a typical day?

Unfortunately my lab days are long gone. Our department is quite big, and as deputy head I'm kept busy making sure the lab-side of things runs smoothly. I spend rather a lot of time writing and reviewing grants and papers, but I try to make as much time as I can for research supervision – it's still a buzz to see new data from one of my students or postdocs that confirms your latest theory.

What's your greatest research achievement?

My work in Cambridge and Newcastle has shown that various inflammatory mediators, all known to be present in disease, can act together on cartilage to synergistically promote its destruction. These observations partly explain why the processes are much more complex than we originally thought and why many patients fail to respond to frontline drugs. However, now we have the evidence for this added complexity, we're better placed to tackle it.

Why did you choose to do this work?

I was fascinated by the variety and number of proteinases in the body while at university and was fortunate enough to do my PhD in Cambridge in a top proteinase lab. I moved to Montreal to work in a top arthritis lab, and the link was made – I've never looked back!

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

Spending several difficult months successfully fighting cancer gave me some appreciation of how we take good health and mobility for granted. Like many, I have family members who suffer with arthritis. It's difficult to see them suffer when your research is going slowly, and you know that even if things were going really well it's unlikely to help them tomorrow. High-quality basic research is time-consuming, but I'm convinced that the variety of research currently funded by Arthritis Research UK represents our best option for new breakthroughs for patients.

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

A wildlife photographer – I love the wilderness, its animals and the sheer tranquillity.

About Drew

Travel is my real passion – our trips include the Arctic, Alaska, the wilds of Canada, the Galapagos Islands, the Inca Trail, Tibet and the Himalayas, and it’s Patagonia and Antarctica this Christmas! Experiencing other cultures really makes you appreciate what you have.

This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Winter 2010, issue 147.

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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.