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Feature:
Osteoarthritis

"No Pills Yet..."

Sandell and students

Linda Sandell, Ph.D. (center), in her lab with summer students Alexis Webber (left) and Celine St. Pierre.
Photo:Robert Boston

"There are no pills yet for osteoarthritis, but we're working on it," says Linda Sandell, Ph.D., professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and of Cell Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis. In osteoarthritis, the soft tissue called cartilage, which cushions the knees and other joints of the body, wears away, causing pain and loss of mobility.

"It's a huge and growing public health issue," says Sandell, who points out that more than 50 percent of people age 65 and over have osteoarthritis. "But it is not just a disease of old age; people get it when they're young, too."

Under a multi-year grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), she and her colleagues are studying stem cells in specially bred mice to determine whether there is a correlation between injury and healing.

"Every person has stem cells, and some people are better at repairing than others," Sandell observes. "We need to find the gene, or genes, for cartilage repair and osteoarthritis in these mice, and target these genes in the development of medications that could be used in humans.

"Every person has stem cells, and some people are better at repairing than others."

"But like heart disease or obesity, osteoarthritis is a complex disease; the research is difficult and expensive, and improvements are hard to measure. We need to change its image as an inevitable result of old age. It has a molecular start, and it takes a long time to develop. People often don't realize that their joints are degenerating until late in the process when they begin to hurt."

Sandell says people can't change their age but they can reduce the risks of osteoarthritis, which, in addition to genetics, include prior joint injuries and being overweight, through exercise and a healthy diet. "First," she urges, "no more couch potato. Check with your doctor, then start walking a couple of miles a day. Use—but don't overuse—your joints.

"Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If your cartilage is okay but your knee is inflamed, ice it," she advises. "Keeping fit is one of the keys to delaying arthritis."

Winter 2013 Issue: Volume 7 Number 4 Page 13