As regular readers of SRxA’s Word on Health know, your blogger is one of the estimated 34 million US adults who suffer from osteoarthritis. The disease, the most common form of arthritis, is characterized by degeneration of cartilage and its underlying bone within a joint as well as bony overgrowth. The breakdown of these tissues eventually leads to pain and joint stiffness. Disease onset is gradual and usually begins after the age of 40, although in some people, myself included, signs and symptoms can appear in your teens or twenties, usually as a result of the wear and tear of repeated sports injuries.
The joints most commonly affected are the knees, hips, hands and spine.
The specific causes of osteoarthritis are unknown, but are believed to be a result of both mechanical and molecular events in the affected joint. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and improving function, and can include a combination physical therapy, weight control, medications and joint replacement surgery. But there is currently no cure.
So we were very interested to hear of a new study in mice in which researchers used gene therapy to reduce the risk of osteoarthritis.
And while there’s no way to know if the gene therapy treatment will help humans, or what the treatment’s side effects and costs might be, the findings are more than just good news for mice with creaky joints.
“This work identifies an approach that can make a difference,” explained study co-author Brendan Lee MD, PhD, director of the Rolanette and Berdon Lawrence Bone Disease Program of Texas. “There’s a great need for treating and preventing osteoarthritis.”
His study examined a protein that appears to be crucial to the lubrication of joints. Researchers injected a gene related to the protein into mice and found that not only did the rodents begin producing it themselves, they also appeared to be resistant to joint and cartilage damage resulting from injury and aging.
Still, before our creaky knees start jumping for joy, as with all early research, there are caveats.
The research was in mice, not humans; the next step is to test the approach in horses, whose joints are similar to those of people. And the gene therapy doesn’t seem to do anything for damage that’s already occurred.
“This kind of therapy would probably not be very useful in patients who have advanced disease,” Lee said, adding that the treatment would likely have to be used with other strategies.
Dr. Joanne Jordan, director of the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the findings “would be really very exciting if this translates up into humans.” The study, she said, appears to be reasonable and especially strong because it looks at osteoarthritis in the mice from different angles.
We agree. Any research that provides insight into the mechanisms of osteoarthritis development and a potential protective approach to its treatment are very exciting indeed. A future with no more horse pills sounds good!