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Professor Philip Conaghan

Phil ConaghanPhilip Conaghan is professor of musculoskeletal medicine at the academic unit of musculoskeletal medicine at the University of Leeds.

What does your work involve?

I work with a great group in a combined academic and NHS team in Leeds. I’m a clinical researcher with research interests in what imaging (especially MRI) can tell us about all types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is my main disease focus, but I also have interests in how we treat many common musculoskeletal problems. I'm also seeking to improve our understanding of how we measure outcomes in trials and how we audit health services. My work includes a mixture of writing research papers and grants; clinical trial design and evaluation; higher degree supervision of medical and allied health professionals; being part of committees related to my research interests; and outpatient clinics at Chapel Allerton Hospital. So life is never dull.

How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?

I moved from Australia to join Paul Emery’s group in Leeds in 1997 and later that year obtained research fellow funding via an Arthritis Research UK project grant – my first MRI study. Subsequently I was partially funded from the Leeds Arthritis Research UK programme grant. Recently I've received Arthritis Research UK grants towards an extremity MRI scanner and for a large randomised trial for common shoulder problems. Arthritis Research UK is hugely important for investigators like myself looking to develop therapies for common problems and plays a big role in the UK’s international status in arthritis.

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

One of my PhD fellows, Anne-Maree Keenan, has recently published our work on the vast problem of multiple joint pains in the community. For older people the average number of painful joints was four, and the impact on daily living tasks of having combinations of multiple painful joints was immense. This work not only explains why many of our current therapies aimed at single joints don't have great impact in the real world (as distinct from clinical trials) but should also prompt a rethink of the focus of research in our rapidly ageing community.

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

I hope to be able to improve our understanding of osteoarthritis by defining different subsets of patients using imaging, so we can target therapy rather than use the 'one treatment fits all' approach we use currently.

What do you do in a typical day?

My days are varied with trial meetings, student supervision, writing papers and grants, clinics, travelling to conferences…and the ever-increasing emails.

What's your greatest research achievement?

I hope the imaging work I’ve been involved with has helped increase understanding of rheumatoid arthritis pathogenesis and drug mode-of-action, and the rheumatoid arthritis MRI atlas that I helped develop with colleagues in an international task force on outcome measures for arthritis is a useful tool. I hope the best is yet to come with osteoarthritis!

Why did you choose to do this work?

I started my specialist training as a haematologist but saw the light and moved to rheumatology. After finishing my specialist training, I went into research because I thought it would be interesting to have a job with a mixture of clinical practice and improving available therapies. Fifteen years on and I’m growing even more passionate about making a significant contribution to clinically-relevant research.

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

Daily! Perhaps the evidence is more visible for a clinical researcher than a laboratory scientist, but I’m really only interested in projects where I can see a good chance of a meaningful application to arthritis sufferers – whether that means understanding causes of pain and responses to therapy or evaluating how we provide services.

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

I think I'd have enjoyed being an architect, but those choices were made many years ago. If X-Factor had been around when I was young or I’d been better looking I could have been the new Sinatra.

About Phil

I'm afraid that my work/life balance isn't what it should be, but I’m working on that. I enjoy the English countryside and love the Lake District and stately homes. I’m also something of an amateur military historian. I wish I could watch more Australian Rules football; my team, Essendon, is my biggest passion, though despite my letters it seems unlikely they’ll leave Melbourne and relocate to Leeds.

This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Winter 2007, issue 135.

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