By Michael Connellan, JDRF 

Published: 15 December 2017

Connect Immune Research is a major new scientific initiative from the type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, Arthritis Research UK, MS Society and other organisations working in partnership.

Here, three experts tell the story of the partnership so far:

  • JDRF’s Director of Research Partnerships Rachel Connor
  • Arthritis Research UK’s Head of Research Awards and Translation Caroline Aylott
  • MS Society’s Senior Research Manager David Coutts 

1. How are your organisations linked?

Caroline Aylott: “Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and certain types of arthritis are all types of autoimmune conditions which have no cure. We are the three leading research charities for these conditions.”

2. Why did the type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, Arthritis Research UK and MS Society decide to create Connect Immune Research?

Caroline Aylott: “Research into autoimmune conditions is often pursued in a disease-specific manner. There are significant opportunities to drive forward our understanding of these fields by encouraging research that works across, or learns from, a wide range of conditions. We want to build momentum among funders and scientists to find the answer by working together in a way that rarely happens across different immune conditions and to break down silos."

“There are a large number of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions known to science. As a type 1 diabetes charity, an arthritis charity and an MS charity, we want answers so we can prevent and find cures for these conditions. But the answer could also allow us to prevent and cure a whole range of other autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, which together affect approximately four million people in the UK. We see this time and time again with drug repurposing, in fact anti-TNF was originally developed as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis but it is now used to treat a wide range of inflammatory conditions.”

“We know there are similarities in the genetic risk factors for many of these conditions. We know that many people live with more than one of them – for example 33 per cent of people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes have at least one other autoimmune disorder at diagnosis – they are much more likely to have coeliac disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis than the general population.”

3. How did you set up this partnership?

Rachel Connor: “In 2014, Wellcome and JDRF joined forces to host a ‘Frontiers workshop’ on common mechanisms of autoimmunity.

“In 2015, the Medical Research Council and Arthritis Research UK joined Wellcome and JDRF in looking at the grand scientific challenges to be tackled around autoimmune and immune-mediated research.  With these partners, we realised we were often funding similar research looking at similar mechanisms in different disease areas. We wanted to ask how researchers of different autoimmune and immune-mediated conditions could be empowered to collaborate more closely – and discover a host of new treatments."

“A further workshop followed at which JDRF and Arthritis Research UK announced our intention to join forces to support collaborative working among this scientific community. With the partnership in place, MS Society swiftly saw the power of this opportunity. Our emerging coalition is Connect Immune Research."

“We will start by funding pilot work: we want scientists from different immune-related specialities to come together to begin uncovering the common threads of these conditions. Progress in individual fields could be turned into faster progress across many fields.”

4. How is the partnership funded?

David Coutts: “Arthritis Research UK, JDRF and MS Society have committed equal funding to the pilot research initiative."

“We believe that allowing the scientific community to show they can work together across conditions will help larger funders begin to see ‘autoimmune conditions’ as a single category much like ‘infectious diseases’, ‘mental health’  or cancer are today."

“As the initiative develops and begins to deliver some results, we hope that a variety of partner organisations with an interest in research related to autoimmune conditions will want to join us.”

5. What impact will the partnership have on patients, researchers and research?

David Coutts: “In the long term, by working with scientists with expertise in different conditions, we could discover that one treatment in a single condition is a skeleton key, unlocking impact far beyond the initial indication. This could also dramatically reduce costs and speed transformation of treatment for millions of people."

“Even before we achieve scientific insights, we believe that our charities working together in this way can help reposition autoimmune and immune mediated inflammatory conditions in public discourse. People with MS and inflammatory arthritis know that their overwhelming fatigue is due to their autoimmune condition, just like people with type 1 diabetes know their condition is not linked to their lifestyle choices. But the public at large does not.”

“Working together, we hope to raise public comprehension of autoimmunity itself, and so provide the basis for better understanding of all of these conditions. We want to place ourselves at the forefront of both public and scientific conversations about rising rates of autoimmune conditions.”

6. What are your next steps?

Rachel Connor: “As you can tell, we’ve already made a lot of progress in building our collaboration. But this is just the start. We want to continue working together, engaging with policy makers and using public affairs tactics to ensure the environment is right for the success of Connect Immune Research.”

7. What challenges (if any) has the consortium faced so far?

Caroline Aylott: “We all work at busy, successful charities. Coordinating diaries and carving out time to collaborate takes focus and discipline."

“Another interesting challenge is that medical research charities typically have supporters who donate to their mission because they or someone they love are directly affected by a particular condition. All members of Connect Immune Research have a responsibility to explain to supporters why they are investing in engagement with researchers focused on other immune conditions. Fortunately, there is a compelling story to tell about the potential benefits of working together.”

8. What advice would you give to others considering partnering in this way?

Rachel Connor: “Only embark on building a collaborative if your project really needs one – or people will see it’s just one organisation displaying some other organisation’s logos on its website but not doing anything differently. With Connect Immune Research, collaboration is the right solution to the challenge we face. None of us can tackle this alone, so if you are part of an organisation focused on an autoimmune or immune-mediated condition, please get in touch to see how you can get involved.”

JDRF is leading on charity sector communications for Connect Immune Research. Email [email protected] to find out more about the project.

MS Society’s research team can be contacted at [email protected]

Arthritis Research UK can be contacted at [email protected]