The role of the rheumatologist has never been more important: Arthritis Research UK’s the ‘State of Musculoskeletal Health 2017’ reports that over 400,000 people in the UK have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and that the cost of RA to the UK economy is estimated at £3.8-4.8 billion.

With this in mind, the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford have come together to accelerate discovery in this important area.



Birmingham and Oxford alliance

An alliance can be defined as ‘a relationship formed between organisations for a joint purpose’. It is entirely fitting, then, that the pioneering rheumatology research being led by the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford with seven NHS partners has colloquially become known as ‘the M40 alliance’.

A year after the Arthritis Therapy Acceleration Programme (A-TAP) was launched in December 2016, supported by a £7 million investment from the Kennedy Trust for Rheumatology Research, it is growing from strength to strength, laying the foundations ready to start delivering outcomes.


An accelerated approach

The primary purpose of A-TAP is to provide the missing link that will ensure that world-class basic science observations are ‘accelerated’ into early-phase experimental therapy for patients by providing the ‘infrastructure of people’ to allow this to happen.

Simply put, A-TAP is bringing together the right people to develop the right drug for the right disease as quickly and efficiently as possible using clinical trials.

The A-TAP team are bringing an innovative new approach to translational inflammation research. The team are accelerating the assessment of novel therapies in the clinic by using pathology-based outcome measures in basket trials; testing the effect of one drug on a single mutation in a variety of disease types, at the same time.

Professor Chris Buckley, Kennedy Professor of Translational Rheumatology at the Kennedy Institute, a dual role held between both universities, explains:

“There is something that I call the ‘Goldilocks paradox’ – how big is big and how small is small. For each disease there is a good size; if you’re too big you don’t have the patients but if you’re too small you don’t have the power. Through A-TAP we are able to reach 5 million patients, which is about right for what we are trying to achieve.”

The outcomes will help treat the cause of disease, not just the symptoms, and ensure treatments are targeted to patients who are most likely to benefit. The A-TAP team are targeting RA, Sjögren’s syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and spondyloarthropathy first. 


Next steps

Looking forward to the next five years, the A-TAP team have set themselves ambitious, but achievable, targets, buoyed by the optimism from a successful first year of putting an organisational structure and strategy into place.

By 2019 the team hopes to have the first clinical trial opened, and by 2022 new patents will be filed and company spin-outs created, external funding will be established for clinical trials, the first clinical fellow will be awarded their PhD, and the A-TAP study completed and published.

Looking further ahead, by 2024 the team is optimistic that an established network of clinicians, nurses and scientists, all trained in translational research, will have been created. It is hoped that A-TAP will have expanded into other research hubs in the UK and that other diseases will be included within the A-TAP model.

With such strong foundations, the future is certainly looking exciting for the A-TAP team and provides further hope for the millions of RA sufferers across the UK and the world.


Working in partnership: Oxford and Birmingham

In this video, Kennedy Professor of Translational Rheumatology, Professor Chris Buckley discusses his research across Oxford and Birmingham.


The researcher behind the research

Chris, how do you switch off and relax?

“I relax mainly by gardening, I love pulling out weeds. We have a gardener who mows but actually I do all the weeds and cutting out the hedges. I keep chickens, which is very exciting because you can get eggs, and I like walking in the Worcester countryside, and now actually the Oxfordshire countryside. My wife and I, with friends from university, are walking the Cotswold Way.”

Which has the better cafes for lunch, Oxford or Birmingham?

“The better cafes are definitely Birmingham. Oxford has some wonderful institutions but the problem is that they don’t always have cafes or integrated places where one can eat. I really like the cafeterias and the food in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the Institute of Translational Medicine so that’s a no-brainer. Birmingham – tick, tick!”

If Birmingham played Oxford at rugby, who would you support?

“If Birmingham played Oxford at rugby, I’d support Worcester Warriors!”


Professor Chris Buckley


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