IACD PhD Student First to be Awarded Exciting New Grant Opportunity

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Michele Fresneda Alarcon
PhD Student Michele Fresneda Alarcon shows the Masonic Charitable Foundation's David Innes, some of his research

The Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease's Michele Fresneda Alarcon has been awarded the very first Versus Arthritis and Masonic Charitable Foundation PhD Scholarship to find new ways to tackle chronic pain in patients living with a type of arthritis. Michele will work alongside Dr Helen Wright, Dr Marie Phelan and Professor Robert Moots to find a new way to "switch off" the pain experienced by people living with rheumatoid arthritis, by reprogramming cells in the body that cause inflammation.

Rheumatoid arthritis currently affects over 400,000 people in the UK. The condition affects people of all ages and can cause devastating pain, making everyday tasks that many take for granted incredibly difficult. It is known as an auto-immune condition. This means that the immune system, which is the body’s natural self-defence system, starts to attack your body’s healthy tissues. In rheumatoid arthritis, the main way it does this is with inflammation in your joints, which causes pain, swelling and stiffness.

The Liverpool-based researchers, with support from Versus Arthritis and the Masonic Charitable Foundation, the Freemasons’ charity, hope that the new study will provide better treatments for the hundreds of thousands of people who are living with the excruciating pain of rheumatoid arthritis, and provide hope to those who have had little or no success with current analgesia and treatments.

The researchers will attempt to re-programme a type of white blood cell, called neutrophils, which are involved in the body’s natural healing processes. Previous research has shown that neutrophils can behave differently in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. The cells can activate several chemical processes that contribute to the inflammation and subsequent joint damage.

The team are keen to develop a greater understanding of these chemical processes, in order to identify a new way to switch off or better regulate the harmful inflammation seen in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. This study may allow the researchers to identify new treatments that reduce joint damage and improve mobility.

The Masonic Charitable Foundation is funded by Freemasons, their families and friends, from across England and Wales.

Dr Natalie Carter, Head of Research Liaison and Evaluation at Versus Arthritis: “Rheumatoid arthritis can have a huge impact on people’s lives, affecting their ability to move freely and stealing their right to do the things they love. As well as joints, rheumatoid arthritis can affect the whole body. Keeping the condition under control is so important for people with arthritis. Not all treatments work for everyone, so the need to develop new treatments is vital. 

“We want to thank the Freemasons for supporting Michele as he sets out to understand more about the processes that occur in cells involved in rheumatoid arthritis. We hope that this new study can help to identify new targets and enable the development of new treatments, to help people live the pain-free life they deserve.”

Dr Helen Wright, Career Development Fellow at Versus Arthritis: “We are absolutely delighted that Versus Arthritis and the Freemasons have chosen to fund this PhD scholarship. This research will unlock the secret to switching off unwanted immune cell activation in rheumatoid arthritis, and identify potential new targets for development of drugs to treat those patients with the most debilitating and damaging disease. In addition, this scholarship will train and support an excellent young researcher and provide him with the necessary skills and training for a career in medical research.”