When Carol Pocklington was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2000, it had a rapid and devastating effect on her health.
“My knees gave out when I was on holiday … I just thought I had a strained muscle,” Ms Pocklington said.
“I went to my doctor, he took a blood test and it indicated I had chronic rheumatoid arthritis.
“Within a matter of weeks, I was in a wheelchair and couldn’t move … nobody could touch me … I then became virtually bedridden.”
Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, attacks the joints, causing pain, swelling and loss of function.
Ms Pocklington left her job, and her husband John left his to become her full-time carer.
They moved from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast, believing they had little time left.
But shortly after the move, Ms Pocklington met rheumatologist Professor Peter Nash, who encouraged her to take part in a clinical trial of a new arthritis drug.
“And I said absolutely yes, not because I understood it but because I was so desperate,” Ms Pocklington said.
“And that’s really what saved me.”
Two decades on, Ms Pocklington, now 77, has had two knee replacements but can still walk well.
She still sees Professor Nash.
The rheumatologist said while major advancements had been made in the treatment of RA, there was always an “unmet need” of people who had tried everything and failed to respond.
“And wouldn’t it be nice to get to the root cause … and turn the root cause off, especially early on before things become triggered or established?” he said.
Gut could hold key
Prof. Nash is the principal investigator in a new clinical trial being run by biotherapeutics company Servatus, also based on the Sunshine Coast.
The company has been delving deep into the gut microbiome, which is home to trillions of microbes — including bacteria.
Some microbes are helpful, but others can be harmful, triggering disease.
Servatus chief executive Wayne Finlayson said they were using a “consortium” of bacteria to treat immune diseases in the trial.
“They’re actually live bacteria common to your immune system and your body,” Dr Finlayson said.
“We’re developing these drugs to modulate the microbiome and rebalance it … other drugs can be quite nasty and the body tolerates them but after a certain amount of time patients have to switch drugs.
“Hopefully, we can provide a much gentler and natural form of treatment.”
Dr Finlayson said the gut microbiome had been a focus in the scientific community for some time.
“I guess the medical profession is just catching up … everyone’s starting to talk about gut health,” he said.
“The microbiome is really the next evolution in medicine.”
The missing link
The company is looking for more participants, ideally located on or close to the Sunshine Coast, to take part in the trial.
Dr Finlayson hoped the research could determine what triggers the disease, which affects around 456,000 Australians.
“We work with a company in Norway, experts in what’s called biomarkers, and they can look at what people have in their microbiome and say, ‘Well, you may be predisposed to getting this’,” Dr Finlayson said.
Prof. Nash has been involved in arthritis clinical trials since 1988 and said, while RA could be hereditary, it could also affect anyone.
“We can control it, we can induce remission, we can stop damage, we can control pain, we can improve quality of life,” Prof. Nash said.
“But the next step is doing something about prevention and cure … that’s the big step that’s not here yet.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the clinical study, or to check if they’re eligible to participate, is encouraged to visit the study’s website or call (07) 3130 0820.