There are over 100 different types of arthritis affecting nearly 175 million people worldwide. The severity of arthritis pain can range from mild osteoarthritis as a natural part of the aging process to severe early-onset rheumatoid arthritis that is debilitating.
Most types of arthritis share similar symptoms that can include:
- Pain and stiffness at the affected joint, especially in the morning or after periods of rest of inactivity
- Redness and swelling
- Limited mobility and range of motion
Depending on the type of arthritis, other symptoms can include rash or generally feeling unwell (malaise).
Because so many are affected by arthritis and the physical, financial, and social cost is so high, researchers have been steadily looking to identify new treatments and potential causes that can help stop the progression of arthritis or prevent it from happening altogether. Here are five new research studies on arthritis.
Researchers at Duke Medicine found that mice that were fed a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids had less progression of osteoarthritis after injury to a joint. Mice were divided into three groups and fed one of the following three diets:
- High in saturated fat
- High in omega-6 fatty acids
- High in omega-6 fatty acids with a supplement of omega-3s
Researchers have long theorized that weight plays a role in the severity of arthritis in the joints of the lower limbs but could not understand why some people had more severe arthritis in non-weight-bearing joints (e.g., hands and wrists).
Even in mice that were obese, the mice eating a diet with omega-3s saw less progression of their osteoporosis and, in another twist, faster healing of wounds. The omega-3s appear to counteract the effects of obesity on arthritis.
Farshid Guilak, Ph.D., Laszlo Ormandy Professor of orthopaedic surgery at Duke and the study’s senior author, notes that, at least in this study, size did not matter:
“We found that independent of body weight, dietary fatty acids regulate ear wound healing and severity of osteoarthritis following joint injury in obese mice. A great next step would be to do a clinical study to look at effect of omega 3 fatty acids post-injury.”
While studying a man with a rare genetic condition called alkaptonuria (AKU), researchers at the University of Liverpool have discovered a new cause of arthritis. Alkaptonuria is a metabolic disease in which homogentisic acid builds up in joint cartilage and causes changes to the physical properties of that cartilage. Research found high density mineralized proteins (HDMP) in the hip joint of the man being studied and compared that hip with the donated hips of eight people who suffered from osteoarthritis. High density mineralized proteins result when the body attempts to fill cracks in the joint cartilage. This “filler” can harden and snap off, leaving behind a jagged edge that rubs against healthy tissue.
This discovery was only possible because researchers did not take calcium out of the joint to study it. Doing so makes the joint softer and easier to examine, but it would have also removed the HDMP.
While no treatment recommendations have come out of this accidental discovery yet, Professor Gallagher, from the university’s Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease believes that it is a valuable finding and holds potential for earlier diagnosis of osteoarthritis:
“Studying a rare illness like alkaptonuria is a worthwhile project in itself, but it can also help with new insights into much more common diseases. This is a case in point, and because of our work on alkaptonuria, we are now able to add a new piece to the puzzle of an illness that affects millions. The discovery of HDMP in humans means that for the first time we are seeing an important mechanism in the process which causes the disease. “
The natural process of aging prompts the body to produce more fat than bone, but researchers at the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University have discovered a protein that actually protects against bone loss and may slow or stop the progression of arthritis. A protein called GILZ not only stops bone loss but also helps hinder inflammation, a major symptom of arthritis.
This discovery could be good news for treatment options. The current treatment of glucocorticoids such as prednisone actually increase bone loss and can cause other serious side effects like diabetes. While GILZ is induced by glucocorticoids, this protein avoids harmful side effects. Developing an oral medication is the next logical step in this research. Scientists are also working to see if GILZ is effective even with an increased inflammatory response. Dr. Nianlan Yang, MCG postdoctoral fellow, outlined the next steps:
“Our previous studies have shown that the GILZ transgenic mouse can make more bone. We wanted to see if GILZ would still have a bone protective effect in an inflammatory environment similar to arthritis.”
Researcher Sheila Arvikar, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston presented a study titled “Inflammation in the Mouth and Joints in Rheumatoid Arthritis” at the 93rd General Session and Exhibition of the International Association for Dental Research. This study found that periodontitis shares many similar characteristics and mechanisms with rheumatoid arthritis and may, in fact, trigger its onset.
The 23 patients with rheumatoid arthritis in this study all showed increased inflammatory markers in all areas, and all patients received routine dental care. These results were compared to 20 age and gender-matched study participants without periodontitis or rheumatoid arthritis.
A blood test for osteoarthritis that can diagnose the disease before symptoms occur may soon be developed. Although there is a blood test for rheumatoid arthritis, this new test, which focuses on the presence of the biomarker citrullinated proteins, is also accurate for diagnosing osteoarthritis.
Lead researcher Dr. Naila Rabbani believes that this finding could lead to early interventions to slow the onset of both types of arthritis:
“This is a remarkable and unexpected finding. It could help bring early-stage and appropriate treatment for arthritis which gives the best chance of effective treatment. Detection of early stage-OA made the study very promising and we would have been satisfied with this only — but beyond this we also found we could detect and discriminate early-stage RA and other inflammatory joint diseases at the same. This discovery raises the potential of a blood test that can help diagnose both RA and OA several years before the onset of physical symptoms.”
Which of these five new developments in arthritis research are you most excited about?