New research will reduce burden of osteoarthritis among aging population

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New research into the early diagnosis, treatment and prevention of osteoarthritis, was presented recently at the first-ever Osteoarthritis Consensus Conference in Toronto. And, for the first time, physicians, scientists, health policy makers and patients united to create a national osteoarthritis research strategy – one that will help eradicate the most crippling disease of Canada’s aging population.

Leading arthritis advocacy groups, The Arthritis Society, the Canadian Arthritis Network, and the Institute of Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis – one of 13 virtual Institutes created by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – spearheaded the Consensus Conference, which highlighted the latest advances in osteoarthritis research.

These advances are set to have a profound impact on the quality of life of the three million Canadians living with the debilitating and unrelenting pain of this disease. With nearly 10 million Canadians set to turn 50 years of age in the next decade – advances into the prevention and early diagnosis of osteoarthritis have become critical. New procedures to detect osteoarthritis earlier will also lead to more effective treatment for patients. A great deal of progress has been made in understanding the progression of osteoarthritis – and in developing new methods to diagnose and treat it.

Early detection a major priority Key osteoarthritis research is taking place in the area of early diagnosis, which allows the disease to be treated before major, irreversible joint damage sets in. These early diagnostic techniques include injecting a unique substance into the joint to enhance the image obtained through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – allowing very early damage to be seen, even before cartilage begins to erode.

Researchers are also using biomarkers – natural body substances that occur when a disease is present – to assess and predict the rate of joint loss much faster than can be done via traditional x-ray monitoring.

The latest genetic research is also shedding light on the progression of osteoarthritis – and the prevention of this chronic disease. Preliminary data suggests that heredity influences the need for hip replacement surgery. For example, someone with a family member who has required a hip replacement for osteoarthritis – will have a higher than average risk of also needing a hip replacement.

This is a major breakthrough that will allow patients to have defective genes replaced with normally functioning ones that maintain joint and bone health within five to 10 years.

Prevention and early diagnosis are critical in reducing the enormous economic burden of arthritis in Canada, which amounts to more than $23 billion each year – most of that being from osteoarthritis.

However, the latest research to examine the economic impact of osteoarthritis in Ontario alone shows that patients do not have adequate access to treatment for procedures like joint replacement surgery. In fact, less than one-third of Ontarians with severe osteoarthritis of the hip or knee had never discussed joint replacement surgery with their physician. This is a major issue when you consider that only 15 per cent of patients would be willing to undergo joint replacement surgery if it were offered.

New hope in repairing joint damageMajor advances in the treatment of osteoarthritis will bring new hope to patients who require joint replacement surgery. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions joints becomes worn and deteriorated, to the point where bones rub painfully together and the affected person finds it difficult to function normally. But a new procedure, which involves implanting regenerated cartilage tissue into arthritic joints to replace damaged cartilage has been successful in animal trials and will be conducted in patients within the next year.

Over the next few years, this kind of treatment will greatly improve the long-term mobility of people with severe osteoarthritis.

The goal now is to create a national osteoarthritis research strategy to guide the direction of research in the next decade and beyond. With that, Canada’s leading arthritis advocacy groups, medical experts and patients will be closer than ever to eliminating one of the greatest health care problems facing Canadians today.