ESF sets out research strategy to push rheumatic diseases up the health agenda

Europe's experts in the field will hear the plan and discuss the recommendations at their annual meeting in Amsterdam this week.

Brussels, June 2006 – The world's largest meeting of experts in rheumatic diseases will today hear and debate calls for a pan-European approach to prioritise and combine the efforts of many excellent scientific and clinical groups working at a national level, and accelerate research in the field.

The European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) meeting in Amsterdam will be briefed on the findings of an expert group on rheumatic diseases, established by the ESF to set out research priorities for Europe, to improve treatments and prevent disease.

Stiff and aching joints may be accepted as an inevitable aspect of ageing, but the fact is that rheumatism is the leading cause of pain and disability in Europe, with approximately 100 million sufferers. Joint diseases account for half of all chronic conditions in over 65-year olds, a figure that will rise as the population ages.

And while these diseases are mainly afflictions of age, there is significant unmet medical need in paediatric rheumatism.

The cost of treatments and the economic loss caused by rheumatic diseases is estimated to more than Euros 200 billions per year.

The task force, comprising Europe's leading researchers and clinicians, along with observers from a patients' representative group and the European Medicines Agency, EMEA, has looked across the field, considering all aspects of basic research and clinical practice, and distilled its findings into five key recommendations. The aim is to provide coherent objectives for national and European funding bodies and healthcare providers, and ensure that rheumatic diseases are acknowledged as a major group of diseases within the European Commission Framework Programme 7.

Bertil Andersson, ESF Chief Executive said, "The ambition in this policy paper lies not only in identifying key issues in epidemiology, basic, translational and public health research in rheumatic diseases, but also in presenting the considered and balanced view of experts from across the field on what the research priorities should be."

The following recommendations are made:

  1. Promote a pan European research effort to increase understanding of the basic molecular and cellular processes involved in rheumatic diseases, working from animal models, patient samples and relevant genes, as the platform for discovering novel targets and validated drug candidates
  2. Support coordinated, independent, European studies and clinical trials by setting up a pan European network that can pull together defined patient cohorts and coordinate epidemiological research
  3. Establish a European network to apply advances in cell therapy to rheumatic diseases
  4. Create a focussed European research effort in the two serious degenerative rheumatic diseases, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, to understand the underlying pathology with the aim of developing therapies that stop degeneration/initiate regeneration of damaged tissue.
  5. Set up a permanent Scientific Advisory Group within EMEA to advise the drugs regulator on the approval of new treatments.

The ESF and EULAR want scientists meeting in Amsterdam this week to discuss and question these recommendations, enabling them to be refined and presented as representing the views of all Europe's experts in rheumatic diseases.

Professor Maxime Dougados of Groupe Hospitalier Cochin, Paris, co-chair of the task force group said, "Excellent research is being carried out in countries across Europe. We need to create bridges to allow data be pooled so we can compare or merge different cohorts. This will help us to assess the burden of disease, understand the predisposing factors and find biomarkers for diagnosing and monitoring disease."

"At the same time we need a strong relationship between EMEA and rheumatologists, to allow patients' needs to be considered in the drug approval process, and to ensure the regulator gets consistent, independent and expert advice."

Co-chair, Professor Andreas Radbruch of DRFZ, Berlin, said, "The great challenge in rheumatology today is to apply the growing understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms – both in terms of how disease is initiated and propagated, and the cellular processes involved in degeneration and regeneration of the affected tissues - to develop disease-modifying and regenerative therapies."

"Across Europe, there is considerable competence in the field of rheumatology, but it will require significant pan-European coordination and funding of integrated research to achieve this goal."

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