Innovative Research Grant Spotlight: Farshid Guilak

 “Did you know that when the average person is active, they can apply nearly a ton of force to their joints?” Dr. Farshid Guilak asks during a phone call inviting him to be a part of the Arthritis Foundation’s Faces of Research campaign.

 The Lazlow Ormandy Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Duke University Medical Center knows a lot about joints. In fact, Dr. Guilak is fascinated by joints and how they work, as well as all the challenges posed by trying to produce artificial joints. “It’s amazing that nature built this:the joint. There is no way for man to build a joint that is as effective.”

 Unfortunately, as Guilak, whose specialty is biomedical engineering, acknowledges, sometimes our joints are afflicted with osteoarthritis. Whether due to genetics, obesity or brought on by an injury, osteoarthritis affects roughly 27 million American adults, causing chronic pain, stiffness, and sometimes severe disability. The only treatments available at this time – exercise, weight control, pain medicines, or for the most extreme cases joint replacement – do nothing to stop the progress of this joint disease.

 As a recipient of a 2012-13 Arthritis Foundation Innovative Research Grant, Guilak and his team of researchers have set out to better understand the causes of OA and to develop new therapies to treat and even halt progress of the disease. As part of his current AF-funded research, Guilak noted that certain people appear to have “superhealer” properties, bouncing back and healing more quickly following a joint fracture, while others are slower to heal and develop arthritis at the fractured joint.He and his team began with the assumption that treatment using stem cells from “superhealer” mice might help regular mice avoid developing OA following an articular fracture. Their work eventually led them to the fortuitous discovery, however, that treatment with stem cells from regular mice had the same effect. In a study published last August in the journal Cell Transplantation, Guilak’s research revealed that the delivery of 10,000 stem cells (from either typical or superhealer mice) to the injured joint prevented the mice from developing  post-traumatic arthritis (PTA), unlike a control group that received only saline.  Guilak’s research revealed that the stem cells – a rare and specific type called mesenchymal stem cells that are found in bone marrow – changed levels of certain immune factors and altered the healing response of the bone.

 Guilak hopes his research will lead to further advances in the treatment of OA. He’s interested in one day growing new cartilage from a patient’s own stem cells to replace damaged cartilage and halt the progress of OA/PTA. He’s also working on engineering cartilage tissue as part of an effort to develop an unlimited source of cartilage for use in the testing of new pharmacologic therapies.

 A former athlete who played professional racquetball until age and injuries quelled his participation in the sport, Guilak also wants to gain a better understanding of the relationship between obesity and OA and what role stem cells may play. “Athletes load their joints far more than obese individuals, yet there is a greater incidence of OA among the obese,” Guilak points out “Obese people also develop arthritis in their hands more frequently than in their legs.  I hope to one day get a better understanding of how obesity and metabolic syndrome relate to the development of arthritis, and if there is a role for stem cells in preventing or treating it.”

 Guilak has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with the Arthritis Foundation that includes earning a post-doctoral fellowship and two Innovative Research Grants. “Few, if any other organizations, have had the impact on finding effective treatments for arthritis or helping patients and physicians understand the disease. I’m pleased to be a part that effort.” 

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