The more we learn about one disease, the more doors we can unlock that may lead to solutions for others.

The next breakthrough may come in the field of osteoarthritis (OA). Marked by the gradual deterioration of cartilage and bone in major joints, OA was once thought to just be a consequence of joint “wear and tear,” but we’re now beginning to understand that the immune system also plays a role.

It’s a major concern: OA is one of the world’s leading causes of disability, and yet interventions are currently limited to pain management, lifestyle modification, and — in severe cases — surgical joint replacement.

Success in treating this disease, or in shutting down the pain signals, would yield a widespread impact on quality of life, and on health care systems and economies worldwide.

“The more we learn about one disease, the more doors we can unlock that may lead to solutions for others.”

Re-building joints naturally

Funded by The Arthritis Society, Mt. Sinai’s Dr. Rita Kandel and her team are experimenting with a kind of natural joint replacement.

They have created a material that can take the place of bone, but is porous enough to allow actual bone to grow into it. Covering that bone substitute is cartilage grown in a laboratory from the recipient’s own cartilage cells. Eventually, the bone substitute degrades, leaving only the recipient’s new cartilage and bone replacing the damaged area.

This project has the potential to rewrite how we deal with severely arthritic joints.

Managing pain

An emerging theory for OA is that a significant part of the pain experienced is neuropathic in nature —arising from damage to the nervous system rather than physical joint degeneration. This may explain why current therapies are only partly effective in managing OA pain.

This summer, The Society funded its first study into medical cannabis, a three-year investigation led by Dalhousie’s Dr. Jason McDougall to examine the ability of cannabis-like compounds to repair joint nerves and thereby relieve neuropathic pain from OA.

Physicians in Canada are able to prescribe medical cannabis to patients, but many are reluctant to do so because they lack evidence-based guidelines to be able to make informed treatment recommendations. This study and others are intended to fill that gap, and open up new options for Canadians in pain.

Towards a cure

Helping people live better with arthritis today is critical, but so is making progress towards a cure. More than 4.6 million Canadians live with arthritis, yet it receives only a small allocation of national health research funding.

Despite that funding shortfall, Canada remains a world leader in quality arthritis research. We have the ingenuity and dedication — and with the resources to back them, it will only be a matter of time before the secrets are unlocked, and we can finally erase the pain of arthritis for good.