A palaeontologist turns arthritis researcher

Anyone who’s followed my blog or twitter might have read that after my PhD I managed to get a temporary part-time job as a research assistant in an osteoarthritis lab after I finished. I was extremely lucky to get this position. A week before my viva, the lab PI emailed my PhD supervisor based in Bristol asking if she knew anyone with CT experience that was looking for some work. As I was finishing my PhD and living in Bristol, this was welcome news. And so, in October, I started my new job as a research assistant in Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience, working on analysing CT scans of zebrafish for osteoarthritis research.

Before starting this job, I knew pretty much nothing about arthritis. Arthritis was just an inflammatory thing that happens in your joints when you get old. And it’s pretty much unavoidable. This is still somewhat true, but I’ve learned a lot since. There are a lot of kinds of arthritis, but the 2 main ones are rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that generally affects hands and feet, and osteoarthritis, which is a degenerative joint disease common in hips, knees, and fingers, and the one that my work involves. The first 2 things I learned about osteoarthritis, and arguably the most important, are that pretty much all vertebrates are susceptible to osteoarthritis (it’s even been identified in dinosaurs and pliosaurs!), and that there is a strong genetic component. It’s not just about age, which we commonly think. Although most people will get some form of osteoarthritis at some point in their life, regardless of genetics, there are also several forms that are strongly genetically linked, and if there is some way that we can understand this better, maybe just maybe we can treat it better or prevent it in the future.

And this is where my job comes in. The group I’m working with, lead by Chrissy Hammond, works on zebrafish. Zebrafish are used as a model organism for a lot of medical research, having the advantage of being fairly easy to breed, and reaching full maturity in a few years. This group looks at different genes that are thought to be related to osteoarthritis, and is looking at the different morphological changes caused by these gene mutants. Some fish get deformed jaws, some have weird bone density issues, some have fused or malformed vertebrae, some are missing ribs (not kidding), etc.

My job is to look at the CT scans of all these fish. I’m looking for any of these morphological changes, quantifying difference in shape, size, etc, trying to get an idea of which genes and which mutations might be related to osteoarthritis and function. Does a shape change of the jaw affect feeding? Or how does vertebral column changes affect movement? There are many interesting questions that can be answered by looking at the skeleton of zebrafish with osteoarthritis, and there is so much more that we can do with these scans and the different genes.

I have learned so much in this job so far. I’ve analysed over 100 individual fish, learned a lot about fish anatomy (both muscular and skeletal), learned how to estimate bone density using CT scans, and how to operate the CT scanner by myself. In 2.5 days of scanning alone a few weeks ago, I produced close to 1 TB of data, which has been another interesting lesson in itself. I have another 2 days of scanning scheduled in 10 days, which will probably produce another 1 TB of data. I’ve also been lucky enough to be involved in a publication pretty soon after joining the group, and am currently working on some data for another.

My contract is nearly up, but they are trying to figure out ways to extend it. Hopefully I’ll be able to do this for a little while. I am happy to keep doing it, but I’m also looking forward to getting back to palaeontology eventually! In the meantime, back to the fishes…

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