By: Sophia Shwartz
There are many diseases that are sensationalized by the media in order to astound or scare the public. However, most news outlets fail to report on the epidemic that is the number one cause of disability in America--the epidemic that causes loved ones to experience major pain and loss of function. As obesity rates, the age of baby boomers, and the number of sports injuries rise, so do the number of people affected with osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis is usually thought of as a disease brought on by years of wear and tear, but in reality, it is more complex than that. It is defined as “an abnormal remodeling of joint tissues driven by a host of inflammatory mediators within the affected joint”. At freely movable joints, bones do not meet and cartilage normally serves as a smooth surface with a low level of friction allowing for a typical gliding movement during joint movement. When osteoarthritis develops, the cells in cartilage called chondrocytes become activated and begin to increase production of matrix proteins and matrix-degrading enzymes, especially at areas experiencing the most stress and impact. This activation results in the degradation of the proteoglycan and collagen network, which is a key structural and mechanical component of cartilage, in affected areas while promoting thickening the subchondral bone (bone located underneath cartilage). The result is increased friction due to the loss of cartilage between the two bones.
Dr. Richard F. Loeser, M.D., the Herman and Louise Smith Distinguished Professor in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology and the Director of Basic and Translational Research in the Thurston Arthritis Research Center, focuses his research on the basic mechanisms relevant to joint tissue destruction. Dr. Loeser uses both mouse models and human tissue in his research in order to understand the mechanisms that drive degradation. The use of mice in research allows for Dr. Loeser’s lab to perform various experiments within a short amount of time due to the quick rate at which mice replicate and grow. Thus, his lab is able to see what effect an overexpressed protein or underexpressed protein in transgenic and knockout mice will have on the development of osteoarthritis and mobility of the mouse. Human tissue from tissue donors is also used in several experiments, one of which involves seeing how mechanical force affects cell signaling in which the cells of the human tissue are incubated with coated magnetic beads that bind to the cells and then moved with a magnet in order to stimulate impact of such activity as walking.
The goal of Dr. Loeser’s research is to develop a new treatment for osteoarthritis that can slow or stop its progression. This is important, as current treatments available to osteoarthritis patients only treat symptoms of the disease. The increasing senior population as a result of the aging of the baby boomer generation, as well as an increase in national obesity rates, contributes to an increase in osteoarthritis patients. Patients are spending progressively more money on treating symptoms, which is not always affordable or covered under insurance. This leaves a lot of people struggling to cope with the effects of osteoarthritis.
Dr. Loeser conducts both laboratory-based research and clinical research, meaning that he sees patients as well. The purpose of laboratory-based research is to study different factors within osteoarthritis at the microscopic level while clinical research allows him to see the effects of diet and exercise on patients who suffer from the disease. Dr. Loeser states that he chose to go into the field of rheumatology while he was studying internal medicine and that his interest stemmed from the fact that the field required extensive research instead of just diagnosis and treatment. His research may lead to the relief and increased function of millions of people.