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About SickKids

November 16, 2009

SickKids scientists discover Hedgehogs could play a role in treating osteoarthritis

TORONTO – Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, is a painful and debilitating disease affecting over 200 million people worldwide. It occurs when the cartilage in the joints wear down over time. Currently, there is no cure for it; drugs are used mainly to manage the pain. Researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) have found a pharmacological approach to treating the disease. The study is published in the November 15 advance online edition of Nature Medicine.

“If used in patients this could be the first example of a treatment to prevent the degeneration of joints,” says the study’s principal investigator Dr. Benjamin Alman, Head of Orthopaedic Surgery and Senior Scientist at SickKids, and Professor of Surgery at the University of Toronto. “It would be a true biological approach to attack the pathogenesis of osteoarthritis.”

Osteoarthritis is not a paediatric condition and SickKids researchers didn’t set out to find a solution to this disease. The scientists had actually been investigating the role that a family of proteins, called Hedgehog, plays in the development of cartilage tumours, when they stumbled upon an unexpected observation. They found that when Hedgehog proteins were activated in mice, the mice developed osteoarthritis.

Hedgehog proteins are known to play an important role in regulating chondrocytes, or cells that make up the joints or growth plates. Chondrocytes in joints or cartilage are smooth cells that are present for a lifetime. However, chondrocytes in growth plates (cells responsible for making people tall) grow, die off and make bone.

Results of this study indicate that in osteoarthritis, the cartilage joint chondrocytes behave more like growth plate chondrocytes. Patients and mice who had osteoarthritis also had a high level of Hedgehog. They also found if they increased the level of Hedgehog, mice developed osteoarthritis. More importantly, they found when the protein was blocked either genetically or by using a Hedgehog blocking drug, they were able to reduce the amount of arthritis that developed.

“We may have found a very promising approach to blocking the amount of joint damage and slowing down the progression of the disease,” says Alman. “It might prevent people from having to get joint replacements. They can lead active lives and reduce the pain and discomfort associated with the disease.”

This research was supported by Canadian Institutes of Health Research and SickKids Foundation.

The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), affiliated with the University of Toronto, is one of Canada’s most research-intensive hospitals and one of the world’s leading centres dedicated to improving children’s health in the country. As innovators in child health, SickKids improves the health of children by integrating care, research and teaching. Our mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized care by creating scientific and clinical advancements, sharing our knowledge and expertise and championing the development of an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system. For more information, please visit www.sickkids.ca.  SickKids is committed to healthier children for a better world.

For more information, please contact:

Matet Nebres
The Hospital for Sick Children
Phone: 416-813-6380
email: matet.nebres@sickkids.ca

Suzanne Gold
The Hospital for Sick Children
Phone: 416-813-7654 ext. 2059
email: suzanne.gold@sickkids.ca