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Four researchers at NDORMS have been awarded a Research Ignition Award, as part of an initiative by the Kennedy Trust for Rheumatology to stimulate new and ambitious avenues of research.

Dr Ghada Alsaleh, Prof Marco Fritzsche, Dr Srilakshmi Sharma and Dr Akira Wiberg
(l-r) Dr Ghada Alsaleh, Prof Marco Fritzsche, Dr Srilakshmi Sharma and Dr Akira Wiberg

The Research Ignition Awards provide up to £100k over 1-2 years to support incisive and cutting-edge projects in areas that have a clear relation to disease pathways of rheumatological, musculoskeletal and related inflammatory disorders.

Professor Jonathan Rees, Head of Department at NDORMS said: 'Congratulations to each of the four researchers at the Botnar and Kennedy Institutes who will be able to advance their research through the Research Ignition Award scheme. We are grateful to the Kennedy Trust for this initiative which will help bridge the gap between basic and translational research to improve the quality of life of patients.'

The award winners are:

  • Dr Ghada Alsaleh
  • Professor Marco Fritzsche
  • Dr Srilakshmi Sharma
  • Dr Akira Wiberg

Dr Ghada Alsaleh, Versus Arthritis Career Development Fellow

Ghada received her Research Ignition Award for a research project to develop interventions for osteoarthritis, a leading cause of disability worldwide. Her research project will focus on aging of cells, which is known to be the greatest risk factor for OA. The process of autophagy, which is a major recycling pathway for cells to maintain their functionality, declines with age. Ghada's group has revealed an opportunity to promote more 'youthful' autophagy by developing medicines which influence the expression and function of a single gene called TFEB, which they found to dramatically decrease with age in different human cells.

Ghada said: 'I am grateful to the Kennedy Trust for this award and the opportunity to test my hypothesis which centres around the idea that the decline of TFEB in joint tissue due to aging plays a pivotal role in the development of osteoarthritis (OA). I aim to demonstrate that enhancing the function of TFEB can lead to improvements in OA.'

Professor Marco Fritzsche (KIR), Professor of Biophysical Immunology

With the Research Ignition Award, Marco and his group plan to establish next-generation microscopy technology to support drug profiling for rheumatological, musculoskeletal, and related inflammatory disorders. The last few decades have seen unparalled advancements in health and disease as a result of multi-disciplinary efforts across research, clinics and biomedical engineering. However, genuine translation of drugs to market remains slow and costly. Marco's group will establish a new, cutting-edge drug profiling technology that will direct impact on basic scientific research, translational medicine, health and disease, hoping to avoid late failure in clinical trials.

Marco said: 'The Kennedy Ignition Award is a great recognition for our innovative work with ZEISS R&D, and comes at the right time to accelerate progress.'

Dr Srilakshmi Sharma, Senior Clinical Fellow

Uveitis is a condition where a part of the eye called the uvea becomes inflamed, and which can occur on its own in the eye or in association with other diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, ankylosing spondylitis and psoriasis. Srilakshmi’s group is undertaking  novel research to understand the molecular and cellular changes during eye inflammation in humans using single-cell RNA sequencing and proteomics. 

'We are delighted to receive this  award which will enable us to expand our recruitment to achieve the largest such bioinformatic resource and enable cross tissue genomics  with tissue from associated inflammatory diseases including ankylosing spondylitis.  Our goal is to identify possible targets which we can use in future clinical trials,’ said Srilakshmi.

Dr Akira Wiberg, NIHR Clinical Lecturer in Plastic Surgery

Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is a common and disabling disease of the hand caused by compression of the median nerve in the wrist. While there are surgical options, the procedure is not always a success, and there are, as yet, no effective drug treatments. The Research Ignition Award will help Akira's group develop effective non-surgical treatments for CTS by targeting molecules that play a role in the thickening and scarring of the sub-synovial connective tissue (SSCT), which wraps around the median nerve in the wrist. They will use a technique called single-nucleus RNA-sequencing to discover the types of cells that make up this tissue, and advanced microscopy to see how the cells are arranged. Their goal is to see if they can administer a drug to reduce the activity of these molecules.

Akira said: 'This is a critical first step in developing new treatments for CTS, and this Kennedy Trust Research Ignition Award will bring us one step closer. We are grateful to the Kennedy Trust in supporting our research.'