A new chair at the Morgridge Institute for Research takes aim at osteoarthritis, a debilitating and painful disease that affects more than 27 million Americans. Currently, osteoarthritis is largely treated with palliative care to help patients alleviate their symptoms.
“I think because arthritis is life-altering, not life-threatening, it doesn’t attract the research dollars required to find a solution,” says Peggy Pyle. “It’s time to change that!”
And Peggy knows. Since she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis, she’s been shocked at the lack of research into prevention and irradication of the disease. Treatment options are limited to medications like NSAIDs or joint replacement with no way to stop osteoarthritis’s progression.
Peggy’s commitment to battling the disease has only increased since her husband Tom was diagnosed with arthritis and underwent a hip replacement.Now with support from the Thomas and Margaret Pyle Chair, which honors Tom’s longtime service on the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Board of Trustees, there’s a new commitment to tackling osteoarthritis at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Joshua Coon, a professor of chemistry and biomolecular chemistry and Morgridge Institute affiliate, is the inaugural recipient of the chair. The Coon Lab specializes in creating and applying high-powered must-have technologies that help scientists answer biomedical questions with applications for human health.
“We hope to accelerate technology and accelerate all areas of biological research,” he says. “I really consider our team ‘technologists.’ We are building and developing new tools to measure biomolecules.”
Coon is a renowned innovator of mass spectrometry technology with more than 100 research collaborations across UW–Madison and the world, including the Morgridge Metabolism Initiative directed by Dave Pagliarini, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and ongoing research supported by the National Institutes of Health to identify molecular markers of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Josh is a true innovator and collaborator who helps researchers in many fields do their work faster and smarter with an excitement that keeps pushing science forward,” says Brad Schwartz, Morgridge CEO. “We are so grateful to the Pyles and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation for their generosity—we can’t wait to see where Josh’s research goes next.”
The Coon Lab brings a level of precision to dig deep into the living molecules that make up biological systems or diseases. Using mass spec, they measure molecular mass of thousands of biomolecules and use those measurements to quantify each molecule’s abundance. These data are then used to create a molecular atlas of the studied system, a key first step in understanding a disease.
“The revenue the chair generates will allow us the flexibility to pursue new and exciting avenues of research—research that will improve the human condition,” Coon says.
“The revenue the chair generates will allow us the flexibility to pursue new and exciting avenues of research—research that will improve the human condition.”
With support from the Thomas and Margaret Pyle Chair, and additional support from the Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellowship program and private gifts, the Coon Lab is now an important link on new national osteoarthritis collaboration.
Katie Overmyer, a researcher in the Coon Lab and a Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellow, is leading an exploration of the molecules in synovial fluid, the joint fluid that becomes inflamed in osteoarthritis. She’s hoping to better understand the molecules in order to identify potential biomarkers of the disease, its status, and what therapies are effective. To date, there are no non-imaging biomarkers for diagnosing osteoarthritis or assessing the effectiveness of treatments.
“Most of my lab work is actually not at the bench but at a computer,” Overmyer says. “I do a lot of data analysis making plots, trying to integrate different data types we collect.”
Overmyer’s expertise as a technologist is bolstering research with Peter Muir, the Melita Grunow Family Professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UW–Madison, who is using canine models for osteoarthritis, and with Peter G. Shultz at the Scripps Research Institute who is investigating novel therapies in humans.
“We collect a lot of different kinds of data,” Overmyer says. “We try to piece together those data and make a story to explain biological systems.”
Both Pyles are loyal Badger alums and have a long history of philanthropy and service to UW–Madison. Tom is currently on the Morgridge Institute Board of Trustees and has served on several UW–Madison boards.
Peggy is a lawyer by training, but science and medicine have always intrigued her. She grew up in a medical family surrounded by research at Dartmouth College where she worked in various laboratory jobs at the Geisel School of Medicine.
“The Morgridge Institute was created to do life-changing research,” Peggy says. “Their collaborative model promoting innovative biomedical discoveries in partnership with our world-class research university convinced us they would find the answers we need.”