Touching Lives - September 2003
Rheumatoid arthritis -- investigating the properties of tendons
Angela Deakin’s route to medical research began with an engineering degree sponsored by Rolls Royce. “I then went on to work for them as a mechanical engineer for seven years,” she told Touching Lives. “I spent a year working in the US, but the move back from the States presented me with a suitable opportunity to reassess my career.
“I looked at what my options were, and, given my background, medical or bio-engineering were obvious areas. I was attracted to the opportunity to improve people’s quality of life, and to contributing something to society more generally. Having decided to make this career move, I did an MSc in Biomedical Engineering in 2001/02 — and my MSc research turned out to be a pilot study for my training fellowship.”
Angela’s research addresses a condition which is a predominant cause of disability in older people and afflicts about 600,000 in the UK. Amongst other problems, rheumatoid arthritis causes changes in the structure of tendons, which attach muscle to bone. These changes are thought to influence the mechanical properties of the tendon, which affects the efficient functioning of joints.
“There are three elements to my research,” Angela explains. “I’ll be looking at the mechanical properties of tendons — how they transmit the load that’s applied through muscles to bones. Alongside this, I’ll be developing a mathematical model of these mechanical properties.
“I’ll also be using a microscope to look at the structure and materials the tendon is made from, so that I can look at the relationship between what the tendon is made from, and its structure and mechanics — in both normal and arthritic tendons.
“These three elements will go together to build a biomechanical computer model of the hand, enabling us to better understand why you get loss of tendon function with arthritis. This will help us to find out which therapies do and do not work, and why.”
Angela explains how the day-to-day personal contact with a team of researchers contributes to the quality of the work she does. “I really wanted to do something that was part of an established team’s research. That way, ^you know that the work is going to be useful, because you’re contributing to a wider project rather than working in isolation^, where it might be harder to see the direction the work is taking.
“Working with a team of researchers gives you added motivation because you know other people are relying on you to get the work done. I enjoy that sense of working in a team and knowing that all of us, technicians and support staff as well as other researchers, are really interested in and committed to what we’re doing.”
Angela’s experience in industry brings to the team an important and productive element. “Working in industry enables you to develop a really strong skills base, and the problem-solving and analytical skills you acquire are very different from someone who has come from a life sciences or medical background.
“It’s the usual thing that two heads are better than one, especially when they bring two different perspectives. You can address a problem in various different ways and find more innovative solutions when you can bounce different ideas off each other.”