Reaching out with arthritis research

September 21, 2018
7 min read

Katie McCourt

Digital Content Specialist

Arthritis Research Canada (ARC) conducts research that helps transform the lives of people living with arthritis. Because September is Arthritis Awareness Month, we took a visit to the ARC office to talk with research scientist, Mary De Vera, to find out more about the organization’s upcoming event: Reaching Out with Arthritis Research (ROAR) 2018.

Hi Mary! Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a research scientist here at Arthritis Research Canada, and I hold an academic appointment as an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

I have completed a BSc degree in Biochemistry at UBC and MSc and PhD degrees in Health Care and Epidemiology from the UBC School of Population and Public Health. I have also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in perinatal pharmacoepidemiology at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and pharmaceutical outcomes research at UBC’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

And what are your key areas of focus here at ARC?

One area I focus on is medication adherence, which means I am looking into ways to help patients take their medications as prescribed.

Did you know that there are over 100 types of arthritis? While there is no cure for most types, there are long-term therapies that patients can take to be able to manage the symptoms of the disease, and to prevent it from getting worse. Because of the chronic nature of taking medications, and because of other issues like side effects and costs, people can struggle with taking them regularly. This can cause problems such as the disease getting worse, unnecessary hospital visits and increased prescription amounts. My work in this area includes evaluating tools to support medication-taking and how health care providers can help, for example pharmacists, in the community.

I also look at arthritis in pregnancies. This is a special area to me because I think it’s also a chance to raise awareness. Arthritis is generally associated with an older generation, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that there’s actually a gender imbalance in arthritis, where more women are affected than men – with many types of arthritis actually striking during childbearing years.

In 2013, when I began my post here, I was starting to look into how we can support women with arthritis who want to try to become pregnant. What I was finding was that there’s actually not that much data on arthritis medications during pregnancy, or how these medications may impact the health of mother and child.

Tell us more about what you’ve found out so far

There are studies that show that having rheumatoid arthritis, or having lupus, can actually lead to higher rates of miscarriages, and babies born preterm.

The good news is that there are medications pregnant women can take to be able to get the disease under control. One area that we’ve looked at is biologics.

Biologics came onto the market in the early 2000s, but data was lacking in terms of how they might impact mothers and babies. So that’s exactly what we set out to see – does taking biologics before and during pregnancy impact birth outcomes? In March 2018, we published a paper stating that biologics don’t actually lead to preterm deliveries, nor do they cause babies to be born small for gestational age (a term used to describe a baby who is smaller than the usual amount for the number of weeks of pregnancy). So we’ve completed work that gives some reassuring results.

What does your typical day look like?

I am an early bird, and then I’m in bed by 9pm. Typically, I wake up at 5am, and then I usually start either responding to emails, or I might do some writing – it’s a nice quiet time.

I guess what I love about research and academic life is that not one day is the same. I teach a first-year pharmacy class a couple times each week. But I also get to mentor students who are doing some interesting research. I currently have three students who are in undergrad training to become pharmacists. One is doing a research study looking at how women with Lupus take medications during pregnancy.

My second student is working on smartphone medication adherence apps. I was told by a pharmacist that they often get asked by patients, “What apps do you recommend?” only to be bombarded with so much choice in the app stores. One of my previous students actually identified 711 apps dedicated to medication adherence alone, and we found that most of these actually do the same thing. They’re either sending you a reminder to take your medication, or it’s a way for you to track how many medications you’re taking. We then took a deep-dive into ten Apple and ten Android apps by testing and monitoring both their services and reviews. We’ve just submitted a paper on this and we’re trying out open peer-review.

I also have a third student, who is working on her PhD, and is focusing on the connection between mental health and arthritis, which is also an understudied issue.

Tell us about ARC’s upcoming event, ROAR 2018

Reaching Out with Arthritis Research (ROAR) 2018 is a chance to learn about the latest in arthritis prevention and treatment from some of ARC’s top scientists.

The event is on September 29th (9:30am-12:30pm) at the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, BC.

Our forum will cover arthritis prevention, medication safety during pregnancy, joint replacement surgery advice, basic and cutting-edge assistive devices and activity modifications, the importance of arthritis research and more. You’ll even have the opportunity to ask questions!

My goal is to show how arthritis impacts pregnancies and how important our research is. I’m looking forward to showing the public what we’ve done, and offering a glimpse into where we’re going. Now that we’ve identified some reassuring safety signals, we’re working to see how we can get this information more widely disseminated.

I actually have a master’s student who’s going to be talking to women with rheumatoid arthritis who have a) had children, and b) who are thinking about getting pregnant. We’re going to be asking them about how they make decisions in regards to taking medications during pregnancy. It’s one thing to show the data, but it’s another thing when you’re faced with a real-life decision about whether or not to take a drug. It’s a big leap. We want to be able to understand patient preference, and use it alongside our data in order to make recommendations for clinicians, and information tools for women.

Is the event open to the public?

Yes and tickets are $5! If you can’t make it in-person, you can watch our live webinar for free here.

It’s a really unique chance to find out more about arthritis and to squash those misconceptions. It’s an opportunity to have access and talk to scientists and researchers. This event plays an important role in bridging the gap between arthritis research and the public.

Thanks so much for the fantastic insight, Mary. You can find out more about ARC and other arthritis charities on Charitable Impact. Or why not register for the ROAR event today?