Professor Karim Raza: ‘Our Future Health can be the next great success story’
Professor Karim Raza is used to seeing healthcare evolve at a fast rate.
As a Professor of Rheumatology, supported by Versus Arthritis, at the University of Birmingham, Prof Raza has dedicated much of his working life to treating people who suffer from diseases that affect the joints, such as rheumatoid arthritis. When he started practising 25 years ago, doctors would regularly prescribe prolonged courses of steroids to patients who experienced painful joint swelling, even though long term steroids often had significant side effects.
The field of rheumatology has come a long way since then. Over the years, researchers have learnt more and more about the causes of inflammation in the joints. For example, they’ve pinpointed the roles of specific cells in the joint lining that cause swelling and damage. “We’ve been able to develop very precise treatments that target many of these cells, and also the molecules the cells use to talk to each other,” says Prof Raza, who is also a practicing clinician at Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust. “We now have a panoply of drugs that have transformed outcomes for tens of thousands of people.”
It represents a drastic improvement in healthcare – yet researchers like Prof Raza believe there is still a long way to go.
The burden of arthritis
Rheumatoid conditions are widespread in UK society. Nearly 9 million people in the country experience osteoarthritis, which affects the smooth cartilage lining of joints. And over 400,000 adults suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, where the immune system sends excess fluids to joins, causing them to swell.
“We’re at a stage where, for many people, we can control the disease quite well – but broadly speaking we can’t cure it,” says Prof Raza. “Most patients remain on long term medications, and all medicines come with their own risks.” They come with their own costs, too. According to charity Versus Arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis cost the NHS and wider healthcare system £10.2 billion in 2017 – and that figure is estimated to grow to £118.6 billion over the next decade.
Arthritis is widespread in UK society. Nearly 9 million people in the country experience osteoarthritis, which affects the smooth cartilage lining of joints. And over 400,000 adults suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, where the immune system attacks the lining of the joints, causing them to swell.
“We’re now at a stage where, for many people, we can control rheumatoid arthritis quite well – but broadly speaking we can’t ‘cure’ it,” says Prof Raza. “Most patients remain on long term medications, and all medicines come with their own risks.” They come with their own costs, too. According to charity Versus Arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis cost the NHS and wider healthcare system £10.2 billion in 2017 – and that figure is estimated to grow to £118.6 billion over the next decade.
“The challenge for the future is to identify people earlier and earlier,” says Prof Raza. “Indeed, if we can identify people who are at high risk of rheumatoid arthritis before their joint inflammation begins, we might be able to prevent the problems in the immune system that cause arthritis developing in the first place. Instead of managing the symptoms of their disease, we could prevent them from getting the disease.”
“That’s a massively exciting thought”, he adds, “and it’s where Our Future Health offers huge promise. It could allow us to transform the lives of many, many people in the future.”
How our programme will help ease the pain
Our Future Health is bringing together up to five million adults from across the UK, to help health researchers like Prof Raza discover new ways to prevent, detect, and treat diseases. “The powerful thing about the programme is that it combines lifestyle information with blood information, and then tracks people’s health over time,” he says. “It’s a huge and absolutely unique programme – on a national and international scale.”
“In terms of rheumatology, Our Future Health will help us to identify the patterns that suggest someone is susceptible to developing a disease. We call these biomarkers – they could be genes, or chemicals detected in blood, or even lifestyle factors. Most likely, for arthritis, they’ll be a combination of all those things.”
Prof Raza says researchers will be able to spot these biomarkers before people start experiencing any joint symptoms. They’ll be able to identify biomarkers that associate with developing arthritis in the future. “With that information, we can begin to understand exactly why the disease is developing. Then we can develop drugs and other interventions that could stop it in its tracks.”
To illustrate the potential for change here, Prof Raza gives the analogy of a ticking clock. “At the moment, when we see a patient with arthritis for the first time, we can’t turn the clock back. All we can do is slow the march of time. ”
“In the future, I hope we can get to that patient before the clock has started ticking and prevent it starting.”
How you can be part of the answer
It’s not just arthritis research that will benefit from Our Future Health – our programme aims to help the discovery of new healthcare techniques across a range of common diseases that blight the UK population, including cancer, stroke, dementia, and diabetes. That’s why it’s vital that a diverse range of people join, so we can make discoveries that benefit everyone.
Prof Raza points to the example of systemic lupus erythematosus – commonly known as lupus – which is another rheumatic disease in which the body’s immune system causes inflammation. “Lupus tends to affect people of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian backgrounds more commonly than people from White British backgrounds. It especially affects women from those backgrounds. If we want to truly understand lupus, we need to study data from all communities affected, including those groups.”
“One of the things about working in Birmingham, one of the reasons why it’s both a pleasure and an honour to work here, is that we serve a very diverse community. It would be fantastic to see that diversity represented in Our Future Health.”
So, what would Prof Raza say to someone – from Birmingham or anywhere in the country – who is considering joining our programme? “It’s an opportunity to be involved in something that’s going to shape and transform healthcare for the future,” he replies.
“The Covid vaccine development programme was a wonderful example of how science that’s done in this country can change health outcomes at a population level both in the UK and globally. Our Future Health has the potential to be the next great success story.”
“By signing up, you’ll know that you’ve contributed to something that will help future generations across a wide range of health conditions.”