Our joints essentially hold our bodies together. Where two bones meet, there are many types of tissue and bone that work in tandem to ensure the proper mobility of that joint. Take the knee for example; a typical knee joint contains two (or more) bones being held together, cartilage- a class of tissue that covers the surfaces of the bones, ligaments- strong, elastic tissue that stabilizes and fixes the bones’ movements, tendons- which connect muscle to bone, bursae (singular. Bursa) which function to reduce friction within joints, and a synovial membrane which lines the joint cavity and produces a lubricating fluid called synovial fluid. All of the aforementioned structures, including bone, are classified under a subset of tissues known as connective tissues, hence their roles in connecting areas of the body.
When joints function properly, our mobility is at its best, allowing us to comfortably engage in all sorts of physical activity- minded that we stay within our personal limits. However, when joints are not functioning at 100%, movement becomes painful and limited. Diseases that cause joint pain or inflammation are collectively known as “arthritis”.
Osteoarthritis is the leading arthritic disease in Canada. It is characterized by the degradation of cartilage within joints, causing bones to rub against each other resulting in pain and swelling. Although the disease can occur at almost any joint, it commonly presents itself in the knees, hands, spine, and hips.
Common risk factors of the disease include old age, genetics and sex- as the disease tends to affect more women than men. High incidence rates of the disease have been found in post-menopausal women; research suggests that this may be associated with decreases in the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, but the exact relationship between the hormones and generation of the disease have not yet been discovered.
Current treatments for the disease include oral medications, various therapies, and in extreme cases, surgery. Medications are usually aimed at relieving the arthritic pain. Acetaminophen is typically prescribed to those with moderate pain while nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are prescribed to relieve intense pains. Surgical procedures are used to treat the disease at varying stages. Cortisone shots are given to target the knee pain associated with the disease at its source, however, doctors highly suggest that patients limit the number of injections received at a joint because high levels of cortisone within the body can cause further joint deterioration. In very extreme cases, patients may require joint replacements in which certain parts of the joint are replaced with plastic and metal parts.
A novel, non-invasive osteoarthritis treatment developed by Dr. Mitsuo Ochi aims to promote knee cartilage regeneration with the use of a person’s own stem cells. The procedure involves the harvesting of mesenchymal stem cells- cells that typically develop into muscle cells, bone cells, cartilage cells, or fat cells- from one’s bone marrow. Once the cells are obtained, they are cultured in a solution containing medicines and iron powder, which binds to the cells. With the help of ultrasound machinery, the completed solution is then injected into the knee of the patient. Simultaneously, high powered magnets (outside of the body) focus the “iron-laced” cells to the damaged area. Within weeks, the stem cells begin to specialize into the required bone or cartilage needed to compensate for the damage, thus, reducing pain at the joint and restoring the flexibility and mobility of the joint.
This technique has not yet been approved for testing in humans but previous trials done on animals and experiments using human cartilage have shown its ability to replace defective cartilage and the replacement cells have been confirmed to function just as well as the original cells. Many details concerning the technique still need to be ironed out, however, the non-invasiveness and regenerative power of the procedure hint at its potential to become a major, revolutionary osteoarthritis treatment.
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