ADELAIDE, Australia — There’s new hope on the horizon for people suffering from osteoarthritis. A new study by a team at the University of Adelaide in Australia reveals that osteoarthritis may be treatable and even reversible, marking a significant breakthrough in the field.
Osteoarthritis, one of the most common forms of arthritis, is a prevalent condition characterized by the degeneration of joint cartilage and tissues. It has long been managed through symptom relief rather than addressing the root cause. The cost of treating osteoarthritis burdened the Australian healthcare system with an estimated $3.9 billion in expenses between 2019 and 2020. In the United States, the CDC estimates that the total national arthritis-attributable medical costs were $140 billion in 2013 alone.
In hopes of revolutionizing the treatment for osteoarthritis, the scientists in this study identified a unique population of stem cells, characterized by the Gremlin 1 gene, that plays a crucial role in the progression of osteoarthritis. When these cells were treated with fibroblast growth factor 18 (FGF18), they stimulated the proliferation of Gremlin 1 cells within joint cartilage in mice. This led to a substantial recovery of cartilage thickness and a reduction in osteoarthritis symptoms.
These Gremlin 1 cells present promising opportunities for cartilage regeneration, potentially transforming the treatment landscape for other forms of cartilage injuries and diseases, which have historically been notoriously challenging to repair.
“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 study co-author Dr. Jia Ng, from the Adelaide Medical School, in a university 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.”
Current treatments for osteoarthritis have often been likened to a “Band-Aid approach,” merely addressing symptoms. However, this new insight could pave the way for pharmaceutical treatments capable of reversing osteoarthritis and improving health outcomes associated with the condition.
“Known comorbidities of osteoarthritis include heart, pulmonary, and kidney disease, mental and behavioral conditions, diabetes, and cancer,” explains Dr. Ng. “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.”
While this discovery is based on animal models, Dr. Ng noted genetic similarities to human samples, and human trials are already underway. The results of a five-year clinical trial using FGF18 (known as Sprifermin) were published in 2021, showing potential long-term clinical benefits with no safety concerns.
“We look forward to the outcome of these trials and to contribute to the better understanding of a pharmaceutical mechanism to treat osteoarthritis,” says Dr. Ng.
Phase 3 of the Sprifermin trial is currently ongoing, and researchers anticipate that this treatment could become accessible to the public in the near future, offering hope to those affected by osteoarthritis.
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.
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