‘Gremlin’ cells could create cure for arthritis, new study reveals

ADELAIDE, Australia — A new stem cell discovery could potentially cure crippling arthritis pain, not just treat its symptoms. Scientists in Australia have identified a specific type of stem cell that could enable them to strengthen cartilage and reverse osteoarthritis, a condition resulting from the deterioration of cartilage and other joint tissues, leading to pain and inflammation.

Osteoarthritis is the most prevalent form of arthritis in the United States, affecting approximately 32.5 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Existing treatments often adopt a “Band-Aid approach,” focusing on symptom management rather than addressing the root causes. The condition, typically developing in adults in their late 40s or older, can also occur at any age due to injury. It is a long-term, progressive condition that impairs mobility and has historically lacked a cure.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia are optimistic that their findings could transform the world’s understanding of osteoarthritis.

“The findings of our study reimagine osteoarthritis not as a ‘wear and tear’ condition but as an active, and pharmaceutically reversible loss of critical articular cartilage stem cells,” says co-leader of the study, Dr. Jia Ng of Adelaide Medical School, in a media release. “With this new information, we are now able to explore pharmaceutical options to directly target the stem cell population that is responsible for the development of articular cartilage and progression of osteoarthritis.”

Man with arthritis in pain
(© pikselstock – stock.adobe.com)

During their research, the team discovered a new population of stem cells, marked by the Gremlin 1 gene, that is instrumental in the progression of osteoarthritis. In mice, treatment with fibroblast growth factor 18 (FGF18) stimulated the proliferation of Gremlin 1 cells in joint cartilage, resulting in significant cartilage recovery and reduced osteoarthritis symptoms.

The discovery of Gremlin 1 cells offers promising avenues for cartilage regeneration and could be relevant for treating other forms of cartilage injury and disease, which are notoriously difficult to repair. The researchers highlight the potential of this new understanding to lead to pharmaceutical treatments that can reverse osteoarthritis and improve related health outcomes.

“Known comorbidities of osteoarthritis include heart, pulmonary, and kidney disease, mental and behavioral conditions, diabetes, and cancer. Our study suggests that there may be new ways to treat the disease rather than just the symptoms, leading to better health outcomes and quality of life for people who suffer from osteoarthritis,” adds Dr. Ng. “We look forward to the outcome of these trials and to contribute to the better understanding of a pharmaceutical mechanism to treat osteoarthritis.”

Although this research is currently limited to animal models, Dr. Ng notes genetic similarities to human samples, and human trials are underway.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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South West News Service writer Ellie McDonald contributed to this report.

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