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National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

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What Research Is Being Done on Osteoarthritis?

The leading role in osteoarthritis research is played by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part of the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIAMS funds many researchers across the United States to study osteoarthritis. Scientists at NIAMS Multidisciplinary Clinical Research Centers conduct basic and clinical research aimed at understanding the causes, treatment options, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal diseases.

In 2004, NIAMS and other institutes and offices of the NIH began recruiting participants for the Osteoarthritis Initiative (OAI). The OAI is a collaboration that pools the funds and expertise of the NIH and industry to hasten the discovery of osteoarthritis biomarkers: physical signs or biological substances that indicate changes in bone or cartilage. Researchers are collecting images and specimens from approximately 5,000 people at high risk of having osteoarthritis as well as those at high risk of progression to severe osteoarthritis during the course of the study. Scientists are following participants for 5 years, collecting biological specimens (blood, urine, and DNA), images (x rays and magnetic resonance imaging scans), and clinical data annually. For updates on this initiative, go to www.niams.nih.gov/ne/oi/.

Other key areas of research supported by NIAMS and other institutes within NIH include the following:

Animal models of osteoarthritis

Animal models help researchers learn many things about osteoarthritis, such as what happens to cartilage, how treatment strategies might work, and what might prevent the disease. Animal models also help scientists study osteoarthritis in very early stages before it causes detectable joint damage. In a study that concluded in 2004, a group of researchers led by David Kingsley, Ph.D., of Stanford University, and supported by NIAMS, used mice to study the role of genes in the body’s production of cartilage.

Diagnostic tools

Scientists are searching for ways to detect osteoarthritis at earlier stages so they can treat it sooner. Abnormalities in the blood, joint fluid, or urine of people with osteoarthritis may provide clues. Other scientists use new technologies to analyze the differences between the cartilage from different joints. For example, many people have osteoarthritis in the knees or hips, but few have it in the ankles. Can ankle cartilage be different? Does it age differently? Answering these questions will help us understand the disease better. Many studies now involve the development of a rapid magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedure that doctors use to quickly and noninvasively evaluate joint cartilage. The procedure could potentially be used to diagnose the disease. More importantly, it may be an effective method to study disease progression.

Genetics studies

Osteoarthritis in all its various forms appears to have a strong genetic connection. Gene mutations may be a factor in predisposing individuals to develop osteoarthritis. For example, scientists have identified a mutation (a gene defect) affecting collagen, an important part of cartilage, in patients with an inherited kind of osteoarthritis that starts at an early age. The mutation weakens collagen protein, which may break or tear more easily under stress. Scientists are looking for other gene mutations in osteoarthritis. Researchers have also found that the daughters of women who have knee osteoarthritis have a significant increase in cartilage breakdown, thus making them more susceptible to disease. In the future, a test to determine who carries the genetic defect (or defects) could help people reduce their risk for osteoarthritis by making lifestyle adjustments.

WebMD Public Information from the U.S. National Institutes of Health

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