Research group leads fight against spondyloarthritis

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A major feature of arthritis research over the past decade has been the development of multi-disciplinary projects, where a team of scientists with diverse specialties pools their talents in search of improved treatments and an ultimate cure. It is no coincidence that great advancements in arthritis care have been made during this time.

The Arthritis Society played a key role in spearheading this trend in Canada when it made the strategic decision in 2004 to encourage and fund such collaborative efforts. Its first investment, the Spondyloarthritis Research Consortium of Canada (SPARCC), has already paid large dividends by improving both the diagnosis and care of Canadians with spondyloarthritis (SpA).

“Bringing together the brightest minds from different medical backgrounds offers the best hope of unlocking the mysteries of arthritis and turning the tide against this chronic, disabling disease,” says Dr. Robert Inman, a Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and a Director of SPARCC. “The forum provided by SPARCC allows colleagues from across Canada to share and compare data on their patients. With a large sample size, we are able to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of spondyloarthritis than would be possible in a smaller study.”

SPARCC works as a nation-wide network of experts from fields as diverse as clinical rheumatology, medical imaging and social psychology. Spondyloarthritis is the collective term for autoimmune diseases characterized by chronic inflammation of the spine and joints, such as ankylosing spondylitis (AS) and psoriatic arthritis (PsA), and affects about two in 100 Canadians. An autoimmune disease is one where the body’s immune system becomes confused and begins to “attack” the body. In SpA, the joints in the spine are the primary targets of the immune attack, which results in pain and stiffness in the back.

To date, SPARCC’s achievements are many and far-reaching. In 2008, the team discovered a new gene that is linked to the body’s response to inflammation. “This discovery represents a major advance in understanding the mechanisms present in the chronic inflammation of SpA and will have a direct impact on Canadians with this disease,” Dr. Inman notes. “Now that we know this gene plays a role in how SpA originates and develops, we can look for treatments to block its effects.”

SPARRC’s role in determining the critical role th at magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can play in diagnosing this disease and predicting its future course is equally groundbreaking. “Measuring disease activity in ankylosing spondylitis has traditionally been very challenging and limited mostly to a patient’s self-reporting,” explains Dr. Walter Maksymowych, a Professor of Medicine at the University of Alberta and a Director of SPARCC.

“Our group’s major contribution to a recent international study, the largest one ever conducted on MRI and SpA, has confirmed that medical imaging allows us to accurately assess the extent of spinal inflammation,” Dr. Maksymowych continues. “This invaluable information positions us for improving the quality of life for patients, as an early diagnosis allows a rheumatologist to determine which medication regimen is necessary to avoid permanent joint damage.”

A major challenge for SPARCC is to ensure its findings are distributed and translated into clinical practice. Toward this end, Dr. Inman and Dr. Maksymowych published The Ankylosing Spondylitis Handbook. This publication provides a thorough explanation of measurement methods for AS, international definitions of what falls under the umbrella of spondyloarthritis and inflammatory back pain, and recommendations on how these diseases are diagnosed. The book is widely regarded as an authoritative resource and has been shared with all rheumatologists in Canada and many in Europe. It has also been provided to all rheumatology trainees in Canada and the United States.

“The Arthritis Society must be commended for taking a leadership role in developing this multi-disciplinary approach to research,” Dr. Inman concludes. “The exciting discoveries made by SPARCC have established Canada as a global leader in arthritis research. I’m very hopeful that more momentous improvements in arthritis treatment are around the corner.”

Life-changing arthritis research is made possible by the generous support of The Arthritis Society’s donors. For further information on how you can donate, visit www.arthritis.ca or call 1.800.321.1433.