Dr Helen Wright is determined to better understand arthritis

12 June 2020
Helen Wright delivering a research speech and working from home on a laptop.

Each month, we’ll be talking to a researcher about their work, what inspires them and their hopes for those living with arthritis.  

Dr Helen Wright is an immunologist from the University of Liverpool. An immunologist is interested in how our immune system functions to protect us from disease. Helen is also interested in diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, where our immune cells start attacking the joints and tissues in the body.  

Helen’s research seeks to understand how we can learn to switch off unwanted inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis. She spoke to us about her research and how she’s adapted her work during lockdown.  

How does this research work? The science behind it…

My research is focused on trying to understand the changes that take place in patients with rheumatoid arthritis that instruct our immune system to start attacking joints.  

I’m interested in a particular type of white blood cell, called a neutrophil. Neutrophils normally protect us from bacteria by eating them and digesting them with toxic chemicals.  

In rheumatoid arthritis, neutrophils get a confused signal from the immune system and travel to the joints where they release their toxic chemicals onto the surface of the joint, causing damage to the tissues and cartilage that line the bones.  This causes the swelling and pain associated with arthritis.   

Neutrophils also release “signalling chemicals” that activate other immune cells, making inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis worse.  By understanding the signals that cause neutrophils to attack the joints, we can work out better ways to switch off unwanted neutrophil activation in rheumatoid arthritis.   

I’m using new technologies like gene sequencing to help me understand the difference between healthy and arthritis neutrophils, and this will help me to understand how we can switch off unwanted inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis. 

The motivation behind a career in arthritis research

Ever since I was at school I have been fascinated by human biology. I remember a specific lesson on genetics when I was about 14 or 15 that sparked my interest in inherited traits and how these are linked to both human characteristics (such as being able to roll your tongue) and human diseases like diabetes and cystic fibrosis.   

My undergraduate degree was in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and when I decided to pursue my PhD research I knew wanted to work in some aspect of human disease.   

I wouldn’t say at that point I was an immunologist, but during my PhD I realised that the human immune system, and the role it plays in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, is absolutely fascinating.   

During my PhD I was fortunate to meet a lot of people with arthritis and really began to understand what it was like to live with a chronic, life-long condition. 

Two patients stood out for me. Both were in their early 20s (younger than me at the time) and both had crippling inflammatory arthritis that wasn’t responding to treatment.   

I followed both of these young people through months of joint aspirations, steroid injections, changes in medication, even joint replacements, until both eventually found a treatment that worked for them.  

This made me even more determined to find a way to better understand the arthritis disease process in individual patients, so that we can better tailor treatments to each individual, and eventually find a cure for arthritis. 

Research discoveries take much longer than you might expect 

Discovery laboratory science can be a very slow process, and that can be frustrating for patients and also for the scientists. The news is full of new research discoveries, new therapies etc, but these often come on the back of 10-15 years of laboratory research. 

Often our experiments aren’t “ready to go” and actually take many weeks, sometimes months, of optimisation before we can confidently use the protocols to analyse precious patient samples and generate real data.   

Where to find reliable information - researcher recommended

The Versus Arthritis website is one of the best places to find out about the different types of arthritis, and about research that is being undertaken into the causes of and treatments for arthritis.   

The National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) have local groups and are also really good sources of information.

If you're interested in finding out more about the new research and clinical trials that are underway in particular type of arthritis. Then find out if your local hospital or university has a patient involvement group or whether they run public engagement activities.   

For example, the University of Liverpool run several events during the year where members of the public can meet our scientists to find out about all kinds of arthritis research that goes on in our laboratories.  

We also run a patient involvement group which gives people with arthritis the opportunity to come into the university, to both find out about arthritis research and help our academics design clinical and laboratory studies. 

Making the best of conducting research during lockdown 

A lot of what we do in my lab involves analysing large datasets using the computer. We were very fortunate that we had just received a very large, new dataset for analysis right as we went into lockdown. 

In many ways, lockdown has been helpful because we have been able to really focus just on this one piece of data analysis. If we’d been in work as normal we would have been juggling this analysis with lab experiments, collecting samples from the hospital, attending meetings and all the other activities that can interrupt your train of thought in a normal working day. 

Hopes for the future of arthritis patients

I really do hope that treatments for arthritis can become more personalised.  I have seen so many patients who are struggling with their condition because the drugs simply don’t work for them, or who are suffering with nasty side effects from their treatments.   

I’d like to think that as well as having a more targeted approach to treating rheumatoid arthritis, clinicians will be able to start new patients on biologic treatments earlier.  This is mainly constrained by the cost of drugs and their availability on the NHS in the UK, but also because we don’t know which treatment will work for which patient.  

So many patients have said to me that their arthritis “isn’t bad enough yet” to start a biologic treatment. This seems like such a false economy to me, and very bad for patients’ general wellbeing.  

Read more about our research

You can learn more about Helen and her PhD student’s research tackling chronic pain, funded by Masonic Charitable Foundation PhD Scholarship. 

We’ll keep you posted on progress and updates, find out more about our research.