Looking for a Pill to Preserve Cartilage
Beyond the treatment of osteoarthritis, other projects in Dr. Farshid Guilak’s lab at Duke University are designed to prevent osteoarthritis by discovering why and how cartilage breaks down in the first place.
In one set of experiments, students and postdoctoral fellows in the lab are poking and prodding single chondrocytes, the cells that make up cartilage, with glass tubes that are one-tenth the diameter of a human hair, to learn how these cells sense changes in their environment and how they respond to that stress. An important discovery in this line of research has been the identification of ion channels in these cells that when opened allow the influx of calcium. The calcium acts as a signal to let the cell know that it’s being mechanically loaded.
Mechanical loading through exercise like walking helps to nourish joints by squeezing water and nutrients into spongy cartilage, which doesn’t have its own blood supply.
“If you don’t have this channel in mice, and you don’t sense loading, then the mice get very bad osteoarthritis,” Dr. Guilak says. This scientific finding provided an understanding of the reason that exercise can benefit people with arthritis.
Dr. Guilak believes this work could one day lead to the development of a drug that could open the ion channels artificially “like exercise in a pill” to help keep cartilage healthy.
Read the other articles in the July/August issue of Research Update: