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The $185B question: Can arthritis be prevented – or cured?

Since the start of the 20th century, the average lifespan for human beings increased by 37 years, boosted by scientific advances in healthcare. While lifespans are expected to continue to climb in the decades ahead, researchers here at Northeastern want to improve the quality of our lives as we grow older.

Figure 1. Increase in human life expectancy through history Figure 2. Incidence of disease increase with age. Arthritis has the highest rate of increase (Sources: National Vital Statistics, 64(11), Mortality data (2002-2003)).

Osteoarthritis (OA) affects a huge number of Americans, with medical care costing just over $185 billion per year. Developing personal resilience is key for the aging population, but OA does not only affect the elderly – in fact, statistics show that if a person sustains a traumatic joint injury, within 10 years there is significant chance that person will develop OA.

Is there a way to prevent this disease – or turn back the clock?

Two Northeastern professors are tackling this $185 billion question.

Science for Longevity: Developing Resilience to Aging by Curing Arthritis” is a new project being co-led by Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Ambika Bajpayee and Assistant Professor of Biology Justin Crane.

“When the joint degenerates, you don’t die from that, but for older adults it’s often the linchpin that either puts you in a nursing home or severely compromises your quality of life,” says Crane. “Even if you’re living the extra 20 years, if it’s in a poor state it really detracts from that extra lifespan…Functional resilience of aging is something a lot of people can connect with.”

With seed grant funding from the Global Resilience Institute (GRI), the two researchers want to understand the genesis of OA and determine: Is there a therapeutic window, how late is too late, and at what stage can we intervene with a drug?

“Degenerative diseases are common and affect hundreds of millions of people across the world,” Bajpayee says, “And yet, we do not have a cure.”

According to the researchers, musculoskeletal diseases such as arthritis affect 50-70% of the population above the age of 65 causing extreme joint pain, inflammation, and immobility. Approaching the challenge with a combination of scientific research and lifestyle management strategies, Bajpayee and Crane seek to address three main areas:

  • Why do cells age and die?
  • How does high sugar consumption in modern diet accelerate joint aging and what level of exercise training is optimal for the health of joint tissues?
  • What are the therapeutic effects of certain promising plant derivatives in reversing age-related osteoarthritis?

The cross-college collaboration between the two Northeastern professors will be key, with research to be conducted in Bajpayee’s engineering laboratory, and continuing across the campus, in Crane’s science lab. A research assistant supporting the two project investigators will have the opportunity to work in both labs.

“Looking at the modern life, the modern world — what are the causes that accelerates the progression of arthritis, aging?” Bajpayee queries. “That’s what we wanted to relate, is modern life with biology. Why does a person age and how is it correlated with development of OA?”

“Strategies to recuperate from joint injury or gradual musculoskeletal degeneration, can improve mobility, reduce depression, and promote greater independence in our elderly population. We propose to increase resilience in the aging population by developing novel ways of treating osteoarthritis (OA), the most common musculoskeletal disease and the leading cause of immobility.”
–Crane and Bajpayee

In Bajpayee’s lab the team plans to create an in-vitro organ co-culture model using bovine knee joint tissues, from young and old animals, to study age related differences.

“We can treat it with different types of stimulus to create artificial aging,” Bajpayee explains. “Create different lifestyles, look at how sugar affects aging and look at the effects of exercise.”

Initially the research will focus primarily on these in-vitro models, before the studies move on to mice, in Crane’s laboratory. Some of the team’s previous work will be applied to this project as well, as they build on past findings. Bajpayee has already received a two-year DOD award to develop therapies for treating OA.

“Ambika has a nice targeting approach for drugs so if we have compounds that are promising, we can design things so that the drug is able to penetrate the cartilage really well,” Crane explains. “Most drugs aren’t able to get into these really dense tissues, to permeate and be active. So it’s not just throwing the drug at the joint, we can specifically target a joint to test its efficacy.”

In the first year Crane and Bajpayee aim to develop a strong research foundation. By year two they intend to reach out to medical practitioners and other thought leaders in the field and seek the collaboration of physiotherapists, geriatrics, and other researchers to further enhance the impact of their work. The findings will also be disseminated in publications, contributing to scientific knowledge, and IP will be filed to protect inventions.

New therapies that slow or stop the progression of OA would make a major impact on public health as well as the economy and, as the research progresses, additional funding will be sought from individuals and foundations with an interest in anti-aging research.

“You hear folks over on the West Coast considering aging as a disease,” Bajpayee says. “People are thinking about it.”

She adds, “When we bring two PIs together from two different areas, something new will come out.”

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About the GRI:
The Global Resilience Institute (globalresilience.northeastern.edu) is leading a university-wide interdisciplinary effort to advance resilience-related initiatives that contribute to the security, sustainability, health and well-being of societies. Our objective is to help advance preparedness at multiple levels to effectively respond to slowly emerging disruptions and sudden disasters, both human-made and naturally-occurring. To learn more about the seed-funding program, click here.

Media Contact:
Christine Boynton
Communications & Media Manager
c.boynton@neu.edu