Fighting rheumatoid arthritis
Fighting rheumatoid arthritis
Credit: Shutterstock/Mary Terriberry. This image is from Shutterstock

Major prize for transforming rheumatoid arthritis treatment

Sir Marc Feldmann and Sir Ravinder Maini of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology have been named 2014 Canada Gairdner Award winners, one of the world's most prestigious awards for medical research.

Their discovery of an antibody-based treatment, or 'anti-TNF' therapy, for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases has transformed the lives of many patients.

Professor Feldmann is head of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology, now part of Oxford University's Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences. Sir Ravinder is a visiting professor in the Kennedy Institute. 

Rheumatoid arthritis is a common, painful and disabling autoimmune disease. In the mid-1980s, the team led by Professors Feldmann and Maini began investigating which molecules might be the cause of this disease. Using tissue from joints of patients and animal models of the disease, they were able to demonstrate that a molecule belonging to the 'cytokine' family, called tumour necrosis factor, was a major driver of inflammation and joint damage in rheumatoid arthritis. 

The research group then showed an antibody-based treatment could block the action of TNF, and was safe and effective for treating people with rheumatoid arthritis. Anti-TNF therapy works rapidly in most patients to reduce pain, improve mobility, and boost quality of life. And in comparison to conventional drugs, it reduces the risk of heart attacks, strokes and increases life expectancy. It has a major role in protecting joints from degeneration, reducing the need for joint surgery.

Not only was this a novel treatment, it was the first demonstration of an effective therapy for a long-term autoimmune disease which used a biological molecule as a drug. It led to recognition in the pharmaceutical industry that biological drugs could compete with traditional chemical drugs.

Professors Feldmann and Maini have improved treatment for many patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and their work has led to other successful anti-TNF treatments and encouraged much further work using antibodies for treatment.

Both researchers will receive 100,000 Canadian dollars for their achievement from the Gairdner Foundation. The researchers will be presented with their awards at a dinner in Toronto, Canada, on 30 October.

Eight scientists from around the world have been named winners of Canada Gairdner Awards this year, receiving recognition for a broad range of new medical discoveries related to heart disease, cancer and parasitic diseases.