Touching Lives - March 2005
Potential new treatment for osteoarthrirtis
Studies into osteoarthritis are nothing new, but a project funded by Action Medical Research has expanded our understanding of the condition and has shown that there is potential for a whole new type of treatment — one that may stop the disease in its tracks.
Dr Donald Salter, Dr Jane Millward-Sadler, Dr Malcolm Wright with Dr Kelly Elliott were awarded £71,925 by Action Medical Research for a two year study into chondrocyte behaviour. Chondrocytes are the cells in the cartilage of a joint and their abnormal behaviour causes this protective tissue to break down and results in osteoarthritis.
The two year research programme, which used tissue from patients who had undergone joint replacement surgery, has demonstrated that by artificially stimulating the chondrocyte cells, they can be made to behave ‘properly’ in a way that would protect the joint, rather than cause the breakdown of the cartilage. It’s the loss of this natural ‘shock absorber’ for the joints that leads to the pain of osteoarthritis.
Dr Salter, who is based at the University of Edinburgh said, “We wanted to know why the chondrocytes in cartilage from people with osteoarthritis behave abnormally and destroy the cartilage — and ultimately see if we could find a way to stop it happening.
“Osteoarthritis is not simply due to ‘wear and tear’ on joints. It is an active disease in which the chondrocytes, instead of keeping the cartilage healthy, show changes in behaviour which lead to cartilage breakdown. By studying these cells in the laboratory, mechanically stimulating them and looking at their responses, it would appear that by interfering with the molecules that regulate the response to mechanical stimulation we might be able to change the behaviour of the cells in diseased joints so that they respond only in a beneficial way, and do not cause damage to the joint.”
Of course, there is some distance between laboratory work and a cure, but this research has uncovered useful information which can be added to the group’s previous studies. The team in the Departments of Pathology and Biomedical Science at Edinburgh is one of the leaders in osteoarthritis research in the UK. Winning funding for further study is not easy. Dr Salter said, “The truth is that osteoarthritis is not sexy, and even though it can cause pain and misery to millions of people it is hard to get the money for new research.
“It is a condition that increases with age and there is no cure. Pain relief is usually the only option and though joint replacement surgery can be very successful in treatment of disability and in the relief of pain there is little that can be done at present to halt progression of the disease.
“Our study was only possible because of the money from Action Medical Research and we are very grateful for this support.
“We have a long way to go, but once it becomes possible to diagnose osteoarthritis at an early and possibly asymptomatic stage, we will have the opportunity to influence the behaviour of the chondrocytes in the joint, reversing damage already done and preventing further destruction of cartilage. ^Osteoarthritis is a common disorder and data from x-ray studies show that more than half of people over 60 have osteoarthritis^, even though some may not actually have any symptoms. It’s a costly and painful disease but as we understand more about it, we may get closer to prevention or a cure.”