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Top 10 Research Advances of 2021

Research advances from 2021 are transforming the future of arthritis.

Thanks to the generosity and vision of our donors and supporters, the Arthritis Society is the leading charity in funding cutting-edge arthritis research across Canada. With this crucial support, innovative minds are answering the most pressing research questions spanning the many types of arthritis. Whether working in the lab, the clinic, or alongside people living with arthritis in their everyday lives, researchers are turning your support into discoveries to relentlessly fight the fire of arthritis. Here are some of the many advances made possible in 2021.

Childhood arthritis impacts school performance

Dr Lily LimDr. Lily Lim, University of Manitoba 

The finding: Childhood arthritis affects physical function and can limit kids’ ability to actively participate in school. It was unclear whether this leads to lower academic performance in childhood and adolescence, which could impact future higher education and career opportunities. Researchers reviewed provincial health and academic records of students in Manitoba with childhood-onset arthritis. They found that students with childhood arthritis performed worse than their peers on their Grade 12 standardized math and language tests, independent of their sociodemographic factors and  common childhood mental health issues. 

The future: These findings will be used to encourage healthcare workers, teachers and families to address unique challenges and offer academic supports so that children and teens with arthritis can have equitable opportunities to succeed. 

Impact of COVID-19 on young workers with arthritis

Dr. Arif JethaDr. Arif Jetha, Institute for Work and Health 

The finding: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the work force and economy has been profound. Researchers found that the pandemic contributed to a loss of employment among young adults with arthritis. The pandemic also created barriers to healthcare and treatment access, affected working conditions and made work feel less safe. 

The future: These findings highlight the need for targeted strategies for young adults with arthritis that promote economic recovery amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and address gaps in their healthcare. 

Life after youth sports injury

Dr. Jackie WhittakerDr. Jackie Whittaker, University of British Columbia - Arthritis Research Canada 
Christina Le, University of Alberta - Arthritis Research Canada

The finding: Youth who have had a sports-related knee injury are more likely to develop knee osteoarthritis (OA). Researchers found that youth and young adults experience a poorer health-related quality of life – including physical, psychological, and social aspects – even as long as three to 12 years after injury. Those with previous knee injuries who had a more complex injury history, injury type, or knee pain were even more likely to experience poorer outcomes.Christina Le

The future: Understanding the factors that influence the quality of life of young people with a history of knee injury will help inform knee injury management, rehabilitation, and OA prevention strategies. 

Better healthcare for inflammatory arthritis

Dr. Mark HarrisonDr. Mark Harrison, University of British Columbia  

The finding: In 2011, the British Columbia Ministry of Health introduced a billing code that encouraged rheumatologists to employ nurses for the care and education of people with complex rheumatic diseases, including many types of inflammatory arthritis (IA). Researchers found that rheumatologists and patients think this new multidisciplinary model of care improved the way medical practices functioned, access to care, patient experience, time management, clinician experience, and patient health outcomes.

The future: A multidisciplinary model of care that includes nurses is perceived to be effective across rheumatology settings in B.C. and could be replicated in other provinces to improve healthcare experiences and outcomes for people with IA.

Mimicking osteoarthritis in the lab

Dr. Sowmya ViswanathanDr. Sowmya Viswanathan, University Health Network and University of Toronto 
Mable Wing Yan Chan, University Health Network and University of Toronto 

The finding: Researchers created a new tool to evaluate osteoarthritis (OA) treatments in the lab by collecting cartilage and joint lining (synovium) that were donated from people with advanced OA during knee replacement surgery. Cartilage and synovium tissues were processed and incubated together in special two-compartment containers with the final product representing the complex environment found in arthritic joints. The model was tested with a common corticosteroid used to treat OA and effectively captured the effects of the drug on the tissues.Mable Wing Yan Chan  

The future: This innovative research tool can mimic how the human disease behaves in the body and help better predict the effects of new therapies for OA. This could accelerate the testing and development of new drugs that are urgently needed for this disease.

Three new osteoarthritis subtypes

Salem WerdyaniSalem Werdyani, Memorial University of Newfoundland 
(Supervisor: Dr. Guangju Zhai) 

The finding: Metabolomics is the study of the complex profile of small molecules produced by cells as they generate energy – and a snapshot of how the body is working. Researchers studied the metabolomic “fingerprints” in blood from hundreds of people with osteoarthritis (OA) in Newfoundland and Labrador and discovered they could be divided into three groups with distinct blood markers. Zhai Guangju

The future: This provides insight into how different subtypes of OA might develop and sets the stage for the personalized treatments tailored to people’s metabolic profiles.

Investing in exercise for osteoarthritis

Darren MazzeiDarren Mazzei, University of Calgary 
(Supervisor: Dr. Deborah Marshall, University of Calgary)  

The finding: Researchers reviewed the current evidence on strategies to manage osteoarthritis (OA) with education, exercise and weight management. They found that supervised exercise programs for people with hip and knee OA provide health benefits and are cost-effective. In contrast, education on self-management strategies, exercise, or diet did not appear to be as cost-effective on their own and may be more helpful when used in combination with a structured exercise program.  

TDr Deborah Marshallhe future: These insights will inform provincial decision-making on funding for OA exercise programs to maximize the use of healthcare resources.

Mental health and gout

Dr. Mary De VeraDr. Mary De Vera, University of British Columbia – Arthritis Research Canada 

The finding: Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that is caused by small crystals that form in the joint. Researchers found that people with gout are more likely to develop depression and anxiety compared to those without this painful condition. Specific disease characteristics, like a greater number of affected joints or frequency of flare-ups, can increase the likelihood of depression. 

The future: Mental health disorders can go unnoticed in a rheumatology setting. Heightened awareness of the risk of anxiety and depression in gout can help ensure people get the timely psychiatric care and support they need.  

Toward a new treatment for spondyloarthritis

Dr. Nigil HaroonDr. Nigil Haroon, University Health Network 

The finding: Spondyloarthritis is a form of inflammatory arthritis that can affect the joints, spine, gut, skin and eyes. Biologic medications only help about half of people with spondyloarthritis and don’t address the abnormal bone formation that often comes with it. Researchers used a mouse model to discover how a protein called MIF is involved in the immune system and its novel role in spondyloarthritis. They found that blocking MIF with a drug could stop the development or progression of the disease. 

The future: This work sets the stage for further development and clinical testing of MIF-blocking drugs. This could lead to a new treatment to improve quality of life for people living with the unrelenting pain of spondyloarthritis. 

Putting the brakes on inflammation

Dr. Maria FernandesDr. Maria Fernandes, Université Laval 

The finding: A protein called CLEC12A can help counteract inflammatory responses seen in gout and other types of inflammatory arthritis – but how it works wasn’t clear. Researchers have unravelled how CLEC12A sends molecular signals in immune cells to dampen this inflammatory response. 

The future: Understanding how CLEC12A works may uncover a novel therapeutic strategy, leading to new treatments for inflammatory arthritis. 

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