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Professor Lucy Wedderburn

Lucy WedderburnProfessor Lucy Wedderburn is a reader and honorary consultant in paediatric rheumatology at the Institute of Child Health, University College, London.

What does your work involve?

The work of my group is to find out why arthritis and related conditions in children happen, with a focus on parts of the immune system which are abnormal in these diseases. The childhood immune system differs from that of adults. For example, in children there's more chance of successfully switching off inflammation and restoring what immunologists call 'tolerance'. Once we understand tolerance fully, we should be able to design ways to switch off inflammation, like arthritis.

Much of the work of my group involves the study of cells and tissues from patients; we focus mainly on juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and juvenile dermatomyositis (JDM), a condition which affects muscles. We also use model systems when needed as these can allow us to test our theories more directly.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

Since 2003. We had a fellowship award to work on our model system of JDM. This has been very exciting and led to new findings – we have evidence that muscle is more able to restore function after damage in children than in adults. More recently we've been awarded a project grant to look at the immunological factors which control whether JIA stays mild or becomes more severe.

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

One important thing is that we've shown that in mild arthritis in children, the immune system manages to generate a more powerful 'regulating' response to arthritis, as measured by the number of a type of cell, called regulatory T-cells, in the joint. This led us to the next stage –asking whether measuring these cells can predict mild arthritis. The other important finding is that we've shown that alteration of just one molecule, MHC Class l, in young muscles leads to more severe disease, like that seen in our JDM patients, than in adults. This means we can now explore differences between adults and children using the information from this model system.

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

We hope that our work on childhood arthritis and myositis will provide explanations of why these diseases persist and which parts of the immune system are altered in these children. this will then allow us to design ways to stop these diseases from damaging the joints and muscles. We also hope this work will lead to information to apply beyond these specific conditions and help us understand the related conditions in adults.

What do you do in a typical day?

The great thing about research is that it's so varied, so there's no truly 'typical' day. The best days are those when administrative paperwork isn't allowed to obscure time for science and we get some exciting new data in the lab. I do 1 clinical day a week, seeing children with arthritis and related conditions. I also do various teaching seminars throughout the year.

What's your greatest research achievement?

Perhaps the most important finding is that we showed that the attempt of the childhood immune system in JIA to control arthritis is directly correlated with the type of arthritis. I hope that this puts T-cells on the map in paediatric rheumatology. More broadly I think that my achievements in the past few years have been to build and recruit a group of young, talented researchers who are inspiring to work with to take our work forward in the next few years.

Why did you choose to do this work?

It's fun, interesting, challenging and always has new things to think about. Above all I love the variety. The work takes me into new fields and ways of working and allows me to think about the patients I see in ways that drive the work in the lab and vice versa.

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

Yes, a lot of time is spent thinking about this. Many of our projects are aimed at finding ways to predict how arthritis in children will develop, how children will respond to treatment, how to predict these differences and how to intervene more appropriately before there's damage to joints and muscles.

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

Re-learn to play the violin well, see more of my family and friends and tour the world on eco-friendly (slow) forms of transport, maybe writing a book illustrating the world's metro systems (amazingly varied) along the way.

About Lucy
Outdoors, my passion is cycling, which can take me to fantastic places, the most recent being the southern hills of Spain. My partner and I are planning a trip to the Derbyshire hills next, and the goal after that is to ride coast to coast (west to east is less windy…). Indoors, music is a major love and route to relaxation; I still do some choral singing but one day will do more. I spend as much time as I can with my two godsons and their families.

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

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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.