A group of researchers at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University, along with two international co-authors, have published a study in Scientific Reports that found aberrant stem cells may play a previously unexamined role in osteoarthritis, a debilitating condition affecting more than 30 million Americans.

The researchers discovered that a small population of stem cells found in the joint cartilage of osteoarthritis patients may contribute to the development and worsening of this joint disease. These stem cells, called OA-MSC (osteoarthritis-mesenchymal stem cells), whose numbers increase as the patient ages and the disease progresses, express tissue-degrading enzymes and may also promote the mineralization of cartilage.

“This holds real promise for future therapies,” says Chathuraka T. Jayasuriya, PhD, of Rhode Island Hospital and the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, the lead author of the study. “These stem cells are a precursor to the chondrocytes that we’ve long associated with osteoarthritis. We may be able to target the stem cells, eliminating them or preventing their proliferation, and saving valuable cartilage for a longer period of time.”

Qian Chen, PhD, also of Rhode Island Hospital and Brown, and the corresponding author of the study comments, “Since we have generated these OA stem cell lines, they will be very useful for screening drugs for treating OA.”

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and frequently occurs in the hands, hips and knees. It can come about as a result of age, injury or overuse. The cartilage covering the end of the bone, which allows for smooth movement in the joint, begins to break down, causing pain, stiffness, and swelling. Over time, the bone itself can also erode. Pain management and ultimately joint replacement are the currently available treatments. There is no FDA approved disease modifying drugs for OA.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, osteoarthritis is the most common form of disability in American adults, and the fifth most prevalent disability worldwide. A study in 2012 demonstrated that osteoarthritis was the highest cause of work loss and affected more than 20 million individuals, costing the U.S. economy more than $100 billion annually.

The study, “Molecular characterization of mesenchymal stem cells in human osteoarthritis cartilage reveals contribution to the OA phenotype,” is supported by two major research grants held by the hospital and the university – the  Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in Skeletal Health and Repair and the Advance Clinical and Translational Research, both funded by the National Institute of General Medicine (NIGMS).

The other authors are Richard Terek, MD, Michael G. Ehrlich, MD, and Nicholas Lemme, BS of Rhode Island Hospital/Brown University and Nan Hu, PhD and Jing Li, PhD of Xi’an Jiaotong University in Xi’an, China.

Christina Spaight O'Reilly

Senior Public Relations Officer
Rhode Island Hospital