Grenfell chemistry instructor led team that developed new approach to treat arthritis

Published on January 15, 2017

Karen Doody, now a chemistry instructor at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University, was the lead author in developing an award-winning paper on a novel way to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

©Gary Kean/TC Media

CORNER BROOK, N.L. — Scientists who research diseases don’t always get to meet the people they hope to one day help.

So, when Karen Doody went to Denver, Colo. in November to join other members of her groundbreaking arthritis research team in accepting an award for their work, it meant a lot for her to see and talk to people living with the debilitating affliction.

Now a chemistry instructor at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland in her hometown of Corner Brook, Doody was the lead author of a study that could some day provide an alternative form of therapy for treating rheumatoid arthritis.

A PhD graduate of McGill University, Doody became interested in studying arthritis while actually doing research on different types of cancer. She began noticing things about the bones and joints she was studying that were just not right, but were not related to cancer or the immune system.

In 2011, she moved to California and began studying her findings more in-depth at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in San Diego. In the next four years, under the supervision of associate professor Nunzio Bottini and with the help of about 20 other researchers, the team produced a paper that more fully explained a new way to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Essentially, the approach is to treat the cells that cause cartilage damage in affected joints in a way that doesn’t impact the immune system like traditional treatments do.

The novel approach is not meant to replace treating the immune system, but promises a complementary treatment that should not make patients more susceptible to infections.

The research earned the team the 2016 Lee C. Howley Sr. Prize for Arthritis Scientific Research from the Arthritis Foundation based in Atlanta, Ga.

At the awards ceremony in Denver in November, there were many people living with arthritis in attendance, some of who were receiving their own awards.

“They were sharing stories about how devastating this disease was,” said Doody. “As a researcher, you don’t often see that. To see these patients so excited to meet scientists who are doing something was really nice.”

Although the paper was published last spring and Doody actually moved back to Corner Brook in November 2015, the work is far from over. The research team recently got a grant from the United States defence department to further develop the work to see if it is a viable option to go to clinical trials.

Clinical trials may still be a few years away, but Doody said the research is well on its way towards that goal.

The research

What Karen Doody noticed in her research was a gene commonly mutated in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in San Diego were aware this gene was highly expressed in arthritis patients, but they didn’t know what it was doing.

Doody helped figure out what it was doing and the team realized this could lead to a new and exciting way to treat the disease.

There is a particular protein on the surface of the cells in the joint that helps regulate the movement of the cells. In a healthy setting, these cells provide nutrition and lubrication to the joints. In patients with rheumatoid arthritis, these cells become more activated and aggressive, moving around the joint and destroying the cartilage.

The treatment Doody and the research team have been working on will better manipulate and control these cells and better protect cartilage destruction.

Currently, treatments for arthritis target the immune system and, while they can be effective, patents often go into remission and joint damage continues.

The treatment Doody’s team is working on does not target the immune system. It would complement those kinds of treatments and, hopefully, help stop joint cartilage damage.