Reprogramming immune cells to reverse osteoarthritis

September 29, 2015 | Dr. Sowmya Viswanathan
Dr. Sowmya Viswanathan

The Issue

For osteoarthritis (OA), there are no current treatments that slow cartilage damage or reverse the disease entirely. Though joint replacement surgery is common, it is not an option for everyone, and it can come with adverse effects. 

Regenerative medicine – where we replace, create or regenerate the body’s own cells and tissues – may hold the key to changing the environment in which OA develops and grows worse. There is much excitement around stem cell research for arthritis. 

Immune cells are the ones that trigger pain and inflammation. They are meant to help repair a damaged joint, but somehow it goes wrong.

The Study

Dr. Viswanathan’s team will deal directly with those immune cells – reprogramming them in an attempt to change the atmosphere in an arthritic joint and, hopefully, kick-start the repair process.

“We hope that calming down the environment in the joint will at least slow down the progression of OA,” Dr. Viswanathan said.

The team will take human cartilage samples from patients going through joint replacement surgery, and reprogram them to become less inflammatory. To do this they will pump more of a specific immune cell – the type 2 macrophage – into the cartilage to see if it stops further degeneration.

Meanwhile, they will take a similar approach in live mice with damaged cartilage following an injury. They will “tip the balance” and flood more type 2 macrophages into the knee joint and see what happens over time. Will the arthritis slow down? Will it stop? Will it reverse?

These two studies in tandem will reveal whether these immune cells could play a role in OA treatment.

The Impact

If altering the makeup of immune cells in a joint can calm down inflammation, it will make it a less hostile, less painful environment. On one hand, osteoarthritis would become a less painful disease. Even better:  we could stop the disease in its tracks.

Dr. Viswanathan said that this could open the door for other possible treatments to fully treat OA, such as steroids, biologics or even stem cells, which can trigger the body’s own repair process to function. 

The ultimate impact: treat people earlier in OA before the damage spirals out of control and get them back to a fully engaged lives at home, work and play. 

The Researcher

Dr. Sowmya Viswanathan is associate director of University Health Network’s Cell Therapy Program, as well as assistant professor at the University of Toronto.  She conducts research at Toronto Western Hospital.

“This grant is so very important and allows me to hire students and create a team,” she said. “It’s an incredible vote of confidence for a young investigator to get a peer-reviewed grant of this size. Changes to federal funding have made it a very competitive space. I can’t tell you how huge this is.”

Principal Applicant: Dr. Sowmya Viswanathan, University of Toronto, ON
Research Program: Young Investigator Operating Grant
Fund Term: 2015-2018
Fund Amount: $319,675