An Interview with World Renowned RA Researcher Dr. Robert Plenge

Dr. Robert Plenge is one of the world’s foremost rheumatoid arthritis researchers. He recently led a team of international scientists who conducted a large genetic study about RA. They discovered 40 new genetic areas related to increased risk of RA that may eventually led to new treatments. These results were published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature1.  Dr. Plenge agreed to participate in an exclusive question and answer interview with Patient Advocate Andrew Lumpe.

Q. What drove you to delve into the mysteries of rheumatoid arthritis? 

A. As a practicing clinical rheumatologist, I saw first-hand the devastating effects of RA if inadequately treated. Further, patients would ask me: "Why did I get this disease and will I be cured?" The answers were not satisfying to either me or the patient.

Q. A large proportion of RA patients do not respond to popular anti-TNF biological therapies currently on the market. What do you think are the reasons these patients don’t respond?

A.Unfortunately, we do not know why RA patients fail to respond to anti-TNF therapy - or any other therapies used to treat RA. There is likely a genetic component, but we know almost nothing about the specific genes.

Q. Based on the genetic weak areas your team has found, what might be some sources of new treatments for rheumatoid arthritis?

A.The amount of time it takes to go from the discovery of a new target to a new therapy is over 10 years. The hope is that some of the new gene regions we discovered will lead to new therapies, but it is just too far away to speculate on anything specific. Having said that, I do think human genetics offers great promising at identifying new drug targets for RA and other complex diseases.

Q. How can genomics and technology revolutionize and personalize the future of rheumatoid arthritis treatment?

A.I am an optimist and a realist. Over many years, I do believe that genetics and genomics will uncover differences between patients that will lead to more precise therapies. However, I do not think there will be many such examples of "personalized medicine" that make it into the clinic over the next few years. The way in which it will happen is through large cohorts of patients with rich clinical data and rich genetic data. Traditionally, this has happened through cohorts in academic medical centers. Going forward, there will also be opportunities through patient-based registries such as the Arthritis Internet Registry sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation.  

Q. From your own research, what can RA patients take away as potential hope for their own battle with the disease?

A. There is a lot of hope! The most important message is that the research is happening at a fast pace. The scientific community is working fiercely to discover the genetic underpinnings of RA. My academic research, which is done in collaboration with many people across the world, is a small part of the exciting research in RA. There are funding agencies such as the Rheumatology Research Foundation that are investing in the smartest people around.

Q. What are some of the organizations that provide funding for your RA research?

 A. I have mentioned two of the agencies above: the Arthritis Foundation and Rheumatology Research Foundation. The National Institutes of Health is a major funder of research. The American College of Rheumatology is one of the most important organizations that support RA research. There is also a very interesting collaboration with Sage Bionetworks and a number of companies and organizations to perform a crowdsourcing challenge to discover genetic predictors of response to anti-TNF therapy.

Q. What do you find to be the most satisfying part of your research work? 

A. The most satisfying aspect of my research is the potential to impact the lives of patients. 

Dr. Robert Plenge currently works for Merck Pharmaceutical and most recently held an academic position at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Broad Institute. You can learn more about his work and his team at

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