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Stopping Arthritis Before It Starts

Newswise — Arthritis affects one in three Americans and is the leading cause of disability in people over the age of 15, according to the Arthritis Foundation. While doctors have been able to treat the disease and offer tips to avoid it, research from the University of Missouri-Columbia may uncover telltale signs about the early stages of arthritis, allowing doctors to reverse its progression.

"There's no current cure for arthritis, but that's because we can't diagnose the disease while it is in a stage that is reversible," said James Cook, a professor of veterinary medicine and surgery. "While some researchers are looking at various biomarkers in blood and other bodily fluids, we're examining specific genes in the cartilage that are involved with the onset of the disease."

Arthritis may occur due to injury, overloading of the joint, or genetic and environmental causes. While it might take years for humans to develop arthritis,dogs develop the signs and symptoms of the disease at a much faster rate than humans. In a preliminary study, Cook identified three specific genes that undergo pronounced changes just two weeks following an arthritis-inducing injury in dogs. Four weeks after the injury, Cook used specific MRI techniques to identity problems associated with arthritis.

"The specific injury that we studied led to articular cartilage degradation, or damage to the cartilage in the knee," Cook said. "This degradation is the hallmark of osteoarthritis, and while we can accurately assess clinical changes associated with the degradation of arthritis, we cannot clinically assess the initiating events that occur in the potentially reversible stages of disease. Through our research, we have found specific genes that are expressed in the areas where degradation will subsequently occur, which may allow us to accurately predict the extent and severity of how the arthritis will develop."

Cook collaborated with Aaron Stoker, Robert B. Gordon Arthritis Research Fellow in the MU Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory (COL) and expert in cartilage gene expression. Using the expertise in the COL and collaborations with researchers from Virtual Scopics, LLC in Rochester, N.Y., Stoker and Cook are determining the extent of abnormal gene expression in the knees of dogs and correlating it to MRI results, a clinically-relevant assessment of arthritis.

"Without the interdisciplinary collaboration, this project and these preliminary findings would not have been possible," Cook said. "Now, not only do we hope to understand the disease a little better, but we are beginning to characterize it at a stage when it might be reversible."

Cook presented the research at the Orthopaedic Research Society meeting in Washington, D.C., in February. A grant for continued funding of this work has been submitted to the National Institutes of Health.