Paving the way for osteoarthritis prevention

Dr. Carson Halliwell examining a patient

Dr. Carson Halliwell recognizes the devastating impacts of arthritis on families. He has experienced them first-hand, touched by arthritis within his own family. Dr. Halliwell's grandfather, stepfather, and father-in-law are limited in what they can enjoy due to arthritis. Playing games with their children, enjoying time with their families and friends, taking long hikes, and participating in sports — all activities that come with restrictions. 

Dr. Halliwell has watched this relentless disease affect his family, which has fueled his determination to be part of a solution. He envisions a world where people can enjoy life without the burdens of arthritis. 

Originally aspiring to be a personal trainer, Dr. Halliwell's career goals shifted when discovering the impact, yet lack of answers surrounding osteoarthritis (OA). The most common type of arthritis, OA affects more Canadians than all other forms of arthritis combined. This progressive disease impacts the entire joint, leading to the breakdown of joint cartilage and the underlying bone. Over four million people in Canada have OA, with one in three diagnosed before the age of 45. There is no cure.

"In 2022, there was a paper published that said 62% to 78% of people who undergo surgery for OA in an affected knee will develop subsequent OA in their other knee within about eight years, which I found to be a staggering number," recalls Dr. Halliwell, who recently completed his PhD in Health at Dalhousie University. Dr. Halliwell's undeniable drive to address knee OA stems from his confidence that there is something waiting to be discovered to change the trajectory of the disease. 

Unraveling osteoarthritis progression and unexpected discoveries

"What I'm passionate about is keeping people as functionally independent as possible and preventing the point where their functional independence deteriorates," Dr. Halliwell says. With funding from Arthritis Society Canada, he's working toward a way for people to live longer, better lives without debilitating symptoms. His primary goal is to reach the point of OA prevention, looking to better understand and prevent OA progression. 

Dr. Carson Halliwell"I think it's difficult as clinicians and researchers because generally when we get people into the lab, they have already established OA. There's only so much we can do in terms of delaying that progression any further," he explains. 

Dr. Halliwell is studying how the knees and supporting muscles work during a 30-minute walk using 3D motion capture analysis, focusing on what happens in the non-arthritic knee of people with painful OA in the other knee. This could help predict a person's risk of developing OA in their unaffected knee and inform tailored rehabilitation approaches to protect the joints and prevent further damage, keeping people functionally independent for longer. 

Dr. Halliwell's dedication and enthusiasm for the potential of his research is transparent. He has watched the project grow into findings even bigger than originally predicted. 

This project will advance the research field, educate patients and inform clinicians across Canada on human movement and function observed early in the OA process.

Funding support

Researchers rely on funding support to make discoveries. Without it, much of their time is consumed by tasks that keep them out of the lab. Securing it, however, is often challenging. For Dr. Halliwell, Arthritis Society Canada's support has alleviated heavy financial pressures, allowing him to focus solely on OA research. 

"The funding from Arthritis Society Canada has really allowed me to become a stronger researcher. It's given me the freedom to spend more time in the lab, work closely with participants and my committee, and fine-tune every piece of my project," he shares. 

This support provided Dr. Halliwell with the opportunity to travel to Vienna to present his work at the OARSI World Congress, the annual international forum for those involved in OA research and treatment. This exciting opportunity opened new avenues for international networking and boosted Dr. Halliwell's connection with other researchers studying areas relevant to his own work. 

Inspiring prevention with physical activity

Outside of research, Dr. Halliwell lives an active lifestyle with a passion for running and cycling. These interests are rooted in his understanding of the importance of physical activity in preventing arthritis. He mentions that his two-year-old Golden Retriever also helps keep him active.

"I am passionate about physical activity and understand its crucial role in preventing arthritis. I hope to inspire others to recognize its importance too." 

Dr. Halliwell's research is driven by a deep commitment to improving the lives of those affected by arthritis. His dedication to prevention could pave the way to a future where families like his own have answers and are spared the suffering that is caused by this unforgiving disease. Dr. Halliwell is optimistic about such a future.

"We are on the right track to making life-changing discoveries," he says.