February 18, 2016, by Michael Jennings
Increasing health and wellbeing along the lifespan
Q&A with Professor Victoria Chapman, Global Research Theme Lead for Health and Wellbeing.
This is the third of our monthly Q&A of our five Global Research Theme (GRT) leads, for you to find out about who they are, their research and what it means to lead one of the University’s five GRTs. Read previous Q&As from Professor Georgina Endfield, GRT lead for Sustainable Societies, and Professor Neil Champness, GRT lead for Transformative Technologies. You can also read Professor Dame Jessica Corner‘s introductory blog as our new Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange.
Find more information on our new Research Strategy 2015-2020, Global Research Themes, Research Priority Areas on Campus News.
1. If you had to explain your research to someone who knew nothing about the field, what would you say to them?
The experience of pain is fundamental to survival: it serves to protect us from external damage, can alert us to underlying disease and forces us to take it easy and let injuries heal. The majority of people have experienced short-lasting pain which is easily treated with drugs such as ibuprofen. However, many individuals of all ages experience long-lasting pain which is either difficult to treat with existing drugs, or requires sustained drug treatment which can lead to unwanted side-effects. Our research is focussed on understanding the mechanisms that mediate pain responses, both at the level of the sensory nerves and within the central nervous system. Using this information, alongside evidence from pharmacological studies using cellular and molecular biology approaches, we can identify cellular targets (for example receptor proteins or enzymes) for new drugs which should reduce pain. This type of mechanistic research has identified that not all chronic pain is the same, for example the optimal drug targets for chronic pain arising from nerve damage (neuropathic pain) are different to those for inflammatory arthritis pain.
2. What inspired you to pursue this area of research?
My interest in understanding how drugs work, and the systems they interact with, resulted in me studying Pharmacology at University College London. During this time I was introduced to the area of neuropharmacology and specifically spinal mechanisms of pain processing by Dr Tony Dickenson, a Senior Lecturer in the department. He inspired many undergraduates to enter the area of pain research, and four of 15 students in my year have had careers working on chronic pain in either academia or industry. I was fortunate to study for my PhD with Tony, which was when I had my first interactions with the pharmaceutical industry (Sandoz, GSK, Merck) and started to attend international conferences. Following my PhD I spent two years in Paris working with Professor Jean-Marie Besson, an international leader in the field of pain research. Jean-Marie was an unconventional role model, the hours were long, expectations were high, questions were difficult and I was often left wondering if I had missed the point in the first place! Jean-Marie inspired generations of pain researchers young and old, including me. He understood and promoted the importance of translational research long before it entered common parlance amongst medical researchers.
3. How will your research impact the average person?
The amount of knowledge that is required for a change in medical practice such as drug treatments is vast, and is achieved by the culmination of many different types of research by many research teams across the world. Being part of the Arthritis Research UK Pain Centre (ARUK) at Nottingham means that my fundamental mechanistic research is aligned to ongoing clinical studies carried out at Nottingham and across the UK. The aim of the centre is to advance understanding of arthritis pain mechanisms and to develop new treatments, both pharmacological and non-pharmacological. Understanding why people experience chronic pain allows better informed treatment plans, which will benefit individuals in the future.
4. What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?
I have been very fortunate to work with many great people, some well-established scientists and others just starting their careers. Enjoying the small victories is very important for my long-term success and mental strength; getting those controversial ideas published, giving a good talk, submitting a grant you are proud of, successful PhD defences. Seeing undergraduate students make the transition into postgraduate success, especially in my area of research, makes me very happy! Being part of the team awarded the centre of excellence for pain research by ARUK has made a big impact on my research and standing within the research community.
5. What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your field?
Discuss your ideas with colleagues and your mentor, get involved in the Research Priority Areas (RPAs) and meet new people from across the University that you can collaborate with. Try to balance research innovation with the tried and tested methods, be open to other peoples’ opinions but don’t be distracted and dragged off-course. I am a firm believer in the value of research planning to sustained long-term research success.
6. What’s the biggest challenge for researchers in your field to overcome?
Chronic pain is debilitating and impacts upon everyday life, disrupting work, sleep and relationships. It is often associated with depression and anxiety, and recent evidence suggests it alters cognitive function. The research community is working together with a common goal of the development of new more effective analgesic drugs which have reduced side-effect profiles, which will improve the quality of life of millions of people world-wide.
7. You lead the Health and Wellbeing Global Research Theme (GRT) at The University of Nottingham. What does this entail?
The aim of our theme is to increase the breadth and quality of research interactions between schools, faculties and campuses, preventing research silos, and increasing the impact of our research outputs. The Health and Wellbeing GRT encompasses many of the great research challenges that face the world today, ranging from chronic inflammatory diseases, the impact of ageing upon the brain and the musculoskeletal system and tackling antimicrobial resistance. This theme includes vital opportunities arising from fundamental advances in stem cell research which are leading to novel regenerative medicine therapies and the development and application of healthcare technologies. My role is to oversee and coordinate the University’s research efforts in these priority areas, encouraging and enabling efforts to make step-changes in the research delivered here at Nottingham.
8. How does your work fit within the Health and Wellbeing GRT?
My own research fits well with a number of the Research Priority Areas: Musculoskeletal health in Ageing and Wellbeing; Translational Biomedical Imaging; Brain Health across the Lifespan. In the future I would like to start a dialogue with Healthcare Technologies with the hope for future research collaborations.
9. How does being based at the University allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?
Nottingham has excellent research facilities and a strong collaborative ethos. The willingness of colleagues from different schools and faculties to collaborate and develop new strands of research has allowed me to broaden my research base, allowing us to look at scientific questions from a different perspective and the freedom to use new research approaches. I am very grateful to many colleagues from across the University who helped me start my career in Nottingham and continue to contribute to the goals of our pain research.
Professor Victoria Chapman began her academic career at University College London in 1987 and graduated with a BSc Hons Pharmacology in 1990. She was awarded a BBSRC studentship from 1990-1993 and graduated with a PhD in Neuropharmacology in early 1994. She then moved to Paris to work at the INSERM Unit U161, Neurophysiologie Pharmacologique, under the guidance of Professor Jean-Marie Besson, funded by a Royal Society Travelling Fellowship. Following a further two year post-doctoral position at UCL funded by GSK (1996-1998) she was then appointed as a Lecturer in Neuroscience in the School of Biomedical Sciences. Since her appointment she has established a research group focused on mechanisms of chronic pain. In 2010 the Arthritis Research UK Centre of Excellence in Arthritis Pain as created, and subsequently renewed in 2015 for a further five years. As Deputy Director of the Pain Centre, she has responsibility for the preclinical studies and their alignment to major clinical questions within the field. She has published over 90 original articles, successfully supervised over 25 PhD students and held grants from the MRC, industry and the Wellcome Trust.