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UTHealth researcher awarded grant by Arthritis Foundation

HOUSTON - (Feb. 1, 2012) - When it comes to treating the millions with osteoarthritis, health care providers could use more options. They can treat symptoms with medications and recommend surgery in severe cases. But, treatments do not address the heart of the problem.

Osteoarthritis is associated with wear and tear of joints. Joints are areas where bones come together and the bones are cushioned by a tissue called cartilage, which can thin over time. Osteoarthritis is a chronic and sometimes painful disease.

Naoki Nakayama, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School, believes he can repair damaged cartilage with the aid of stem cells and has received a grant from the Arthritis Foundation to begin preliminary work.

There are different types of cartilage and Nakayama’s research is centered on articular cartilage, the kind that covers the tips of bones that come together in joints. While wear and tear is a major cause of articular cartilage problems, sports injury can also be a factor.

“If this works, you could repair the damaged cartilage in an affected knee by injecting stem cells,” Nakayama said. “The damaged cartilage is sticky and would hold the stem cells that would start to regenerate.  Multiple injections may be required.”

Nakayama said the treatment would be reserved for damaged cartilage. “People with osteoarthritis may have one or two painful joints but the rest are fine. There is no need to treat healthy joints,” he said. The potential treatment would not treat rheumatoid arthritis, which stems from a problem with the patient’s immune system.

Nakayama is focused on creating an embryonic chondrocyte, which is a cell that Nakayama believes is suitable for regenerative treatment.

To create such cells, he will be working with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), which the National Institutes of Health describes as adult cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell–like state.

“We basically turn the clock back on these cells and use them to recreate different cell types,” he said. The iPS cells will allow him to generate any type of embryonic cells in a culture dish. In this case, he is seeking to create precursors to a form of chondrocyte found in articular cartilage.

There have been other attempts to regenerate cartilage using different types of stem cells but the effect of the stem cells on regenerating stable articular cartilage has been difficult, said Nakayama, whose laboratory is in the Centre for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases at UTHealth.

Nakayama said, “I’ve always been interested in regenerative medicine. I’m particularly interested in joint cartilage regeneration because it cannot be done properly now. This is a real challenge.”

If he is successful in generating and replicating the precursor cell, the next step would involve tests in an animal model to see if damaged cartilage can be restored.

Richard Jennings, regional vice president for the South Texas Division of the Arthritis Foundation, said, “Dr. Nakayama is doing basic research on cartilage restoration. In many cases of arthritis, the cartilage is destroyed resulting in bone on bone.”

Jennings added, “This is the first new Arthritis Foundation research grant in the Texas Medical Center since 2007 and the largest ever granted here.” Nakayama is to receive a total of $200,000 over a two-year period. 

Rob Cahill
Media Contact: 713-500-3030