Researchers discover light that may help detect osteoarthritis

February 9, 2015

Topic: orthopaedic surgeons

If people have chronic knee pain, it can lower their quality of life and keep them from doing the activities they love.

Researchers from Tufts University have discovered a new tool that may be able to detect osteoarthritis. The findings were published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatology.

Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects millions of people around the world. In America, 27 million people are currently dealing with osteoporosis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 2 people will develop osteoarthritis by the time they reach the age of 85. The condition has a few causes, including excessive weight, surgery and orthopaedic injury. The result from all three causes is cartilage loss in the joints. Cartilage is a fundamental material that rests between bones and joints and helps support them, as well as lubricate them so they can move without problems. Once some cartilage is lost, continual motion causes the rest to wear down over time, leaving only bone behind. When the two bones begin to rub up against each other, it is incredibly painful and may cause osteoclasts to form. These are small pieces of bone that have broken off, and may enter the bloodstream or end up damaging the tissue somewhere around the injured joint. Osteoarthritis can also cause stiff joints, create a worse quality of life and lessen mobility. 

A glimmer of hope
When patients see an orthopaedic surgeon and are diagnosed with osteoarthritis, they are usually already in a considerable amount of pain, as the condition has progressed significantly. The researchers believe this tool may be able to stop it.

"Patients are frequently in pain by the time osteoarthritis is diagnosed. The imaging tests most frequently used, X-rays, don't indicate the level of pain or allow us to directly see the amount of cartilage loss, which is a challenge for physicians and patients," said co-lead study author Averi A. Leahy, M.D., Ph.D.

The researchers are hopeful that with this new tool, they may be able to improve people's quality of life and possibly detect the condition's development earlier, leading to better treatment methods. The study authors used the knees of 64 male mice. One of their knees was injured and had  cartilage loss. The other knee was completely fine and was used as a comparison. The researchers found that using the probe, they were able to note when the condition got worse, as the light appeared to get brighter. 

The probe is a small fluorescent molecule that can only be seen using optical imaging technology, as its florescence is similar to infrared technology. The probe was able to show researchers where the most significant amounts of cartilage were lost, which is the main cause behind osteoarthritis. 

Comparing the differences
The study authors were able to determine which activities the mice were performing caused the most damage and quickest cartilage loss. The imaging system was also able to view the very early and middle stages of the condition, which have never been seen before, and may help contribute toward a better solution to this disease. Currently, the condition is treated with physical therapy and certain prescribed medications. The technology was able to show the medication and the effects of it on the bones and joints. Researchers are hopeful that by using this tool, they may be able to develop a better medication that can be more effective in reducing pain and increasing mobility. 

The researchers collected data on the knees for two months by taking pictures of the knees every two weeks to detect if the light was getting brighter in certain areas. They found that the light did get stronger in the injured knee, and remained dull in the knee that was healthy. They hope to use the light to examine later stages of osteoarthritis and use it on pets who are affected by the condition, such as dogs.

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