Powerful Ideas and Promising Minds

July 1, 2017

Researcher looks outside the box to investigate a promising cell therapy treatment for osteoarthritis

Dr. ViswanathanDr. Sowmya Viswanathan believes that a promising new cell therapy could be an effective new treatment for osteoarthritis (OA). Among her roles, Dr. Viswanathan is a specialist in regenerative medicine at the University Health Network’s (UHN) Krembil Research Institute, an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, and leads the Cell Therapy Program at UHN.  She is the recipient of a $320,000 Young Investigator Operating Grant from The Arthritis Society and its donors.

Her study involves identifying ways to “tip the ratio” of immune cells inside the knee to see if it is possible to create an environment that is less inflammatory. Runaway inflammation causes the cartilage to repair itself quickly but improperly, and as the joint worsens the increased inflammation exposes the weakened cartilage to further damage.

Regenerative medicine gives us an opportunity to cure what was once incurable, but research is the crucial step to get us there.” – Dr. Sowmya Viswanathan, Arthritis Society funded researcher

Immune cells are responsible for healing the body and different types must work together for the process to work properly. M1 cells are attackers that round up dead cells and kill bacteria while creating inflammation, which is a necessary part of the cleanup process. M2 cells do the opposite, clearing up whatever the M1 cells have attacked, then returning the joint environment to normal. In runaway inflammation, there is an excess of M1s, so the joint is always creating inflammation.

Research has shown it is possible to make M1 cells act more like M2 cells through a reprogramming process that involves extracting and culturing M1 cells in a dish with certain proteins. Over the first year of the research grant, Dr. Viswanathan and her team have been perfecting their testing techniques to ensure they can accurately alter the immune cells, and refining their experiments to ensure they can capture and measure change within the joint environment.

“OA is a very complex disease,” she says. “It may benefit from more than one treatment. If we can create an environment in the knee that’s less inflammatory and more healing, this will allow any other treatment that targets and repairs the bone and cartilage more directly a much better chance to ‘take.’ ”

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