According to Wikipedia, Osteoarthritis (OA) is a type of joint disease that results from breakdown of joint cartilage and underlying bone. The most common symptoms are joint pain and stiffness. Initially, symptoms may occur only following exercise, but over time may become constant. Other symptoms may include joint swelling, decreased range of motion, and when the back is affected weakness or numbness of the arms and legs. The most commonly involved joints are those near the ends of the fingers, at the base of the thumb, neck, lower back, knee, and hips. Joints on one side of the body are often more affected than those on the other. Usually the symptoms come on over years. It can affect work and normal daily activities. Unlike other types of arthritis, only the joints are typically affected.
OA affects the entire joint, progressively destroying the articular cartilage, including damage to the bone. Patients suffering from OA have decreased mobility as the disease progresses, eventually requiring a joint replacement since cartilage does not heal or regenerate. According to a 2010 Cleveland Clinic study, OA is the most prevalent form of arthritis in the United States, affecting more than 70% of adults between 55 and 78 years of age (that is, millions of people).
“My father was in major pain from his osteoarthritis,” explains Riccardo Gottardi, a scientist at the University of Pittsburgh supported by a Ri.MED Foundation fellowship. “He was in so much pain that he had to undergo a double hip replacement followed by a knee replacement soon afterwards. I could see the debilitating and disabling effects the disease had on him, as he was restricted in his mobility and never fully recovered even after surgery. This was very different from the person that I knew, who had always been active and never shied away from long hours of work in his life – he just could not do it anymore.“
For scientists like Gottardi, a key obstacle in understanding the mechanisms of osteoarthritis and finding drugs that could heal cartilage, is that cartilage does not exist separately from the rest of the body. Cartilage interacts with other tissues of the joint, especially with bone. Bone and cartilage strongly influence each other and this needs to be taken into account when developing new drugs and therapies.
Gottardi and a team of researchers at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering, led by Dr. Rocky Tuan, have developed a new generation system to produce engineered cartilage, bone and vasculature, organized in the same manner as they are found in the human joint. This system is able to produce a high number of identical composite tissues starting from human cells. The team will use this system to study the interactions of cartilage with vascularized bone to identify potential treatments for osteoarthritis. The team’s research has two main objectives: to help understand how cartilage interacts with the other joint tissues, especially bone; and to help develop new effective treatments that could stop or even reverse the disease. Their patent pending system is the first of its kind, and offers a number of advantages including the use of human cells that replicate native tissues. This system more closely matches the effects on humans than standard animal testing could achieve.
The team of scientists is further developing their system to produce tissues composed of more and different cell types that could better replicate the human joint. They have also started a number of collaborations with other research groups and companies that are interested in using the system to investigate other joint diseases and to test their product. “After seeing what my father went through,” says Gottardi, “I decided that I did not want to just watch by working on diagnostics, but rather, I wanted to be able to do something about osteoarthritis and contribute to the improvement of current treatment options.“
Gottardi’s work was recently presented at the Annual Meeting of the Orthopaedic Research Society. Founded in 1954, the Orthopaedic Research Society strives to be the world’s leading forum for the dissemination of new musculoskeletal research findings.