Research

Research

BIRD funds research and supports the next generation of researchers into bone and joint diseases.

Our achievements have included training more than 25 PhD students, 20 clinical research fellows and 10 post-doctoral research assistants. We had significant involvement in developing anti-TNF therapy, one of the treatments for patients with severe arthritic diseases who have failed to improve with standard medicines, and BIRD funded staff are internationally recognised for identifying or characterising new and tiny parts of the immune system (novel autoantibodies) that are not working properly in patients with connective tissue diseases.

Research Grants

BIRD welcomes applications for grants in support of research. 

We focus on awarding pump prime funding for smaller projects undertaken in or from Bath for the benefit of patients worldwide. We fund research projects in rheumatic diseases which: 

  • help to promote and advance medical knowledge 
  • improve treatments for patients 
  • encourage collaboration between clinicians and research scientists 

We look to award pump priming funding of small to medium-sized grants that would be ideally suited to pilot studies, preliminary research, tests of clinical effectiveness or would enable other grants to be made for the above research. Our guideline for grant amounts is £10,000 – £20,000 but we may consider greater amounts, please contact the Executive Director (ED) before submission. We encourage match funding where the applicant has secured funding from another source.

The Research Assessment Group meets twice a year to make awards totalling £80,000 – the application deadlines are 31st May and 30th November.

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Apply for a research grant

To apply for a research grant from BIRD, please read our grant awarding policy click here to see our full grant awarding policy and use our grant application form below.

Apply for a research grant

To apply for a research grant from BIRD, please read our grant awarding policy click here to see our full grant awarding policy and use our grant application form below.

Research projects funded by BIRD

Systemic Sclerosis is a rare, chronic autoimmune condition which causes hardening of the skin and can also affect the internal organs and blood vessels. Pulmonary Hypertension (high blood pressure in the blood vessels that carry blood to your lungs) is a common and sadly frequently fatal complication of Systemic Sclerosis.

 

It is important for doctors to be able to test for early signs of Pulmonary Hypertension in patients with Systemic Sclerosis, because there are potentially life-extending treatments available. The sooner these treatments are started, the better they work.

 

Patients with Systemic Sclerosis are therefore screened regularly for Pulmonary Hypertension. However the current methods available are imperfect. The initial screening tests (echocardiograms, clinical examination and blood tests) often underplay or overstate an individual’s risk of having Pulmonary Hypertension. The definitive diagnostic test (Right Heart Catheterisation) is an invasive test which carries its own risks and is often poorly tolerated by patients.

 

We therefore propose to identify early, non-invasive indicators of Pulmonary Hypertension in people with Systemic Sclerosis. We hope to find methods of detecting or excluding Pulmonary Hypertension earlier, and to reduce the number of invasive Right Heart Catheterisations which they are required to undergo.

 

We hope to identify blood tests which can be used as markers of inflammation and damage to blood vessels. If we are successful then this may allow the presence of Pulmonary Hypertension, or the risk of developing it, to be identified by a simple blood test.

 

We also propose to improve and expand the heart scans which patients undergo, in order to gain better information from them. We will also examine the small blood vessels in patients’ fingernails and nailbeds, to see if these can give us useful information about any damage to the blood vessels in their lungs.

 

The reason why pulmonary hypertension develops in people with Systemic Sclerosis is still not clearly understood, and we hope through our study to add to the current understanding of the nature and role of the bodies’ inflammatory processes in the damage and remodelling which takes place in the lungs’ blood vessels.

 

Developing better tests for Pulmonary Hypertension in Systemic Sclerosis will improve our ability to detect this life-threatening condition, and to start potentially life-extending therapies sooner.

Scleroderma is a rare autoimmune disease that causes skin hardening called fibrosis. There are two types; localised (mainly affecting skin) and systemic (affecting skin and major organs). Up to 25% of children with localised disease have other features such as arthritis. Those with systemic disease can develop life-threatening organ involvement, including heart and lung damage.

Scleroderma affects children in different ways so it is difficult to predict what will happen as they grow. Scleroderma autoantibodies are markers detectable in the blood of patients. In adults different scleroderma autoantibodies are associated with different complications giving doctors useful information on prognosis. >95% of adult patients have a detectable autoantibody but only half of affected children. We think this is because those autoantibodies common in affected children are different from adults. We have shown this to be the case for a related condition called myositis. We know that most children with scleroderma have an autoantibody because a screening test called ANA is often positive.

Identifying key autoantibodies in juvenile scleroderma patients will provide vital prognostic information and will allow more personalised treatment and monitoring based on likely complications. A better understanding of prognosis has been identified as a key issue for affected families.

Osteoarthritis (OA) affects roughly 8.75 million people in the UK, and more than half of them have OA in their knees. Knee OA is a source of pain, stiffness, and poor function in everyday life but there is no cure. OA is usually seen as a disease that affects older people, but there is emerging evidence that people who suffer a knee injury whilst playing sport are at significantly increased risk early in life, as young as their 20s or 30s. For these people, OA symptoms can affect their health and quality of life but there are few treatment options available until their condition worsens. Therefore, this project aims to better understand the experiences of young people with early OA symptoms. It will evaluate their needs and develop a digital support tool to help them manage their symptoms and provide guidance about when and how to seek appropriate medical care. This tool will help people reduce the impact of early OA symptoms on their quality of life and make sure that when they do need medical care, they get seen by the right practitioner at the right time. This will improve their care and help reduce costs to the NHS.

Inflammatory myositis is a highly variable disorder, with considerable morbidity and at times even mortality. Antibodies help identify disease patterns and outcomes as well as responsiveness to therapy. Bath in known as a centre of excellence for measuring the autoantibodies that occur in myositis and have discovered several that were previously unknown by a technique called protein immunoprecipitation.

Although antibodies can be routinely tested by a commercially available Line immunoblot assay, there are concerns about its accuracy as well as its considerable cost essentially ruling out its regular use for clinical practice in India. The collaboration between centres in Bath and Lucknow will facilitate the development and consequent validation of gold standard testing for myositis autoantibodies in India by the technique of protein immunoprecipitation that is available at only 2-3 centres world-wide. It will allow the development of reliable diagnostic testing and earlier diagnosis of myositis patients across India. It will also facilitate research exploring intercontinental differences in patterns of myositis associated with myositis autoantibodies, and ultimately genetic and environmental factors that influence expression of this disease.

BIRD has agreed to fund 9 months’ salary costs for University researcher Amelia Green’s time to complete work looking at factors that may predict the onset of psoriatic arthritis in people with psoriasis, as part of a broader study.  This will allow the research team to take maximum advantage of the rich dataset on file (over 100,000 patients).

In particular she will investigate the prevalence, incidence and evolution of musculoskeletal symptoms reported to GPs by people with psoriasis in UK primary care between 1998 and 2014 and the actions taken by GPs as a result of the reporting of musculoskeletal symptoms (e.g. ordering of blood tests, x-rays and prescribing of analgesic and anti-inflammatory medicines). 

She will also look at the use of primary health care resources in patients with psoriasis and PsA and feed it into the cost-effectiveness analysis of the main randomised controlled trial that forms part of the wider study.

BIRD has agreed to fund a National Institute for Health Research Clinical Lectureship, together with the Royal United Hospital.  BIRD awarded £24,000 each year for three years to Dr Sarah Tansley, following a selection process. The NIHR Clinical Lectureship is a postdoctoral award that provides a clinical and academic training environment for doctors to establish themselves as independent researchers and leaders. Clinical Lecturers spend half their time in specialist clinical training and half in research or educationalist training.

BIRD awarded £25,597 to Dr Abbie Jordan to research Juvenile idiopathic arthritis.   She says “JIA affects a large number of children in the UK and can negatively affect children’s lives. Children with JIA report pain, fatigue, harmful effects on their physical, social and emotional wellbeing as well as disruption to their school experience. School is important as it helps children to develop social, emotional and cognitive skills. While we know that frequent school absence results in poor grades and reduced chances for young people to enter into higher education and later success in the labour market, we don’t know how to support children with JIA to have a positive school experience. 

“This study will provide a detailed account of the challenges that children with JIA face engaging with primary school and what support they need. To accomplish this, we will use child-friendly interviews and drawings to explore the barriers to school engagement for ten children (8-12years) with JIA. We will also consult fifty teaching staff who have supported a child with JIA in schools about their experiences, to identify the types of support that teachers need. Study findings will be used to develop support programmes for a primary school setting to enable children with JIA to have a positive school experience.”

BIRD awarded £5,630 towards this large project, for conference and training costs.  It is due to start in October 2019. Dr McGrogan said, “Very little is known about the effects of medications prescribed during pregnancy as this research is difficult to carry out.

This study aims to get a better understanding of medication prescribed to women for the most common rheumatic conditions (rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis/ psoriatic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease/ arthritis and spondyloarthritis) up to two years before, during and after pregnancy. This will give a greater understanding of any impact that these diseases and medication have on the health of the mother and baby during pregnancy. 

“The study will use anonymised general practice records to form a cohort of women with these diseases diagnosed before or during pregnancy and will be compared to healthy pregnancies.  Outcomes investigated will include major malformations in the offspring, pregnancy losses, stillbirths and the occurrence of maternal illness during pregnancy.

“This study will be one of the largest conducted so far and will capture data on women being treated in the UK. The study will provide further information to women and their doctors to help in understanding risks associated with medications prescribed in pregnancy and how best to manage these diseases in order to have the best chance of healthy outcomes.”

BIRD has given £7,300.00 of follow on funding for research which compares the contents of individual immune cells to identify new drug targets in psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.  Dr Lindsay says “We have now successfully isolated single cells from 3 healthy, 3 PsA and 3 AS individuals. Currently we are working on processing the samples and carrying out the library preparation, ready for sequencing. We aim to send the samples for sequencing by the end of July 2019.” 

BIRD awarded £9,900 for the direct costs (laboratory reagents and consumables) of research to be undertaken by two pharmacology Masters students undertaking a placement year under his supervision at the University of Bath.

Dermal fibroblasts previously cultured from SSc and healthy control donors will be cultured under normoxia and stimulated with Ang-2 and pro-/anti-angiogenic isoforms of VEGF-A both alone and in combination.  They will then assess the influence on the fibrotic potential of diseased and healthy fibroblasts through measurement of collagen assays.

BIRD has pledged to give £15,000 a year for three years towards a PhDship, match-funded by the University of Bath.  Following open competition, Victoria Riddell was selected.

BIRD awarded an exceptional £33,815 to match fund a PhD studentship that investigates the motivational mechanisms that underpin the maintenance of physical activity in patients with AS. Within the proposed programme of research, a pilot randomised controlled trial will be conducted to examine the effect of a newly co-developed intervention to support the maintenance of physical activity in AS patients after residential treatment program.

This research focuses on improving the long-term health and well-being of patients with ankylosing spondylitis. The RNHRD already provides a nationally recognised treatment programme for AS patients. This research aims to further enhance this program by investigating how to support the adherence and maintenance of physical activity when patients return to everyday home life. The emphasis on the maintenance of the physical activity addresses a significant gap in the extant literature and will both advance medical knowledge and help patients maintain the treatment benefits offered from remaining physically active.

BIRD awarded £24,887 to this project, having previously supported Dr Betteridge’s research into Myositis Autoantibodies at the University of Bath for some years until March 2016.

In 2017/18 BIRD funded another programme of summer student scholarships as part of the Arthritis Grand Challenge programme at the University of Bath and the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases at £2,000 each.

The successful applicants were

Kishwar Khanum to work on Adherence to anti-TNF therapy in Rheumatoid Arthritis with project supervisor Dr Sarah Chapman

Natasha Kilpatrick to study Inhaler ease of use and inhalation flow rate in people with rheumatoid arthritis with project supervisor Dr Matthew Jones

BIRD awarded Prof Mark Lindsay (University of Bath) a research grant of £9,895 for continued research into Characterisation of the CD4+ and CD8+ T-cells populations in psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and rheumatoid arthritis using single cell sequencing.

Prof Lindsay’s application went through external and internal review following BIRD’s Grant Awarding Policy. Thank you to Dr J Sherlock (University of Oxford) and Dr S Jones (Queen Elizabeth Hospital) who provided external peer reviews for BIRD.

BIRD awarded Dr Dario Cazzola (University of Bath) a research grant of £30,000 for continued research into Ankylosing Spondylitis and Work: a biomechanics approach to inform self-management programme.

Dr Cazzola’s application went through external and internal review following BIRD Grant Awarding Policy. Thank you to Dr R Gill (University of Bath) and Dr L Modenese (University of Sheffield) who provided external peer reviews for BIRD.

BIRD awarded Dr Abbie Jordan (Univeristy of Bath) a research grant of £5,506 for continued research into CAM use in AxSpA.

Dr Jordan’s application went through external and internal review following BIRD Grant Awarding Policy. Thank you to Dr J Martindale (Lancaster University) and Dr C Flurey (UWE) who provided external peer reviews for BIRD. 

BIRD awarded Dr John Pauling (RNHRD, RUH) a research grant of £30,000.  Dr Pauling’s application had already been through external review with SRUK, and had been reviewed by the BIRD Research Group and its Council of Management.

BIRD funded a programme of summer student scholarships as part of the Arthritis Grand Challenge programme at the University of Bath and the RNHRD.

The Arthritis Grand Challenge aims to address key health issues and develop new therapeutic strategies by collaboration between the University and the RNHRD. The studentships were run in conjunction with the University of Bath’s Department of Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology which has a long-standing and internationally recognized reputation for high quality research with an overall aim of improved healthcare outcomes.  The RNHRD has a strong record of delivering high quality research into rheumatic disease, with several investigators recognised as international leaders in their field. By generating an interdisciplinary arthritis research programme through integrating knowledge from different areas, including public policy, the Arthritis Grand Challenge promotes and advances medical knowledge and treatments in arthritis.

This new initiative provided educational and research opportunities for undergraduate students in the area of arthritis research. The studentships provided hands-on experience of laboratory-based research for undergraduate students between the 2nd and 3rd year of their degree course, prior to applications for postgraduate programmes and graduate employment.

The winning applicants were:

A qualitative study of complementary and alternative therapy use by people with ankylosing spondylitis, prior to their diagnosis – Kelly Blaxall

Development of anti-TIF1 alpha and beta ELISAs / Development of laboratory tests for novel myositis biomarkers – Maria Edwards

Inhaler ease of use and inhalation flow rate in people with rheumatoid arthritis – Yasmin Kafaei Shirmanesh

BIRD has supported Dr Sarah Tansley’s research grant in Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis since January 2015. Sarah is based at the University of Bath.