Arthritis is a degenerative disease that eats away at the joints and is rather difficult to treat, with a cure so far remaining out of reach. But research has now uncovered a new glimmer of hope, in the form of molecule taken from algae that, when modified, might just stop the degenerative effects in their tracks.

According to Swiss research institute Empa, to varying extents, arthritis affects around 90 percent of people over the age of 65, making it the most widespread of joint diseases. The condition is characterized by the degradation of the cartilage in the joint, most typically in the knee, hips and fingers, which would normally act as a protective lubricant. As the disease progresses, this can reach a point where bones are no longer protected and rub directly against one another, causing great amounts of pain for sufferers.

While anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers can certainly make life easier by treating the symptoms of arthritis (as can a joint replacement if things reach that point), there remains no actual cure for the disease. But scientists at Empa, together with colleagues from ETH Zurich and Norwegian research institute SINTEF, have discovered a promising new candidate.

It is based on a polysaccharide, which is a long-chain sugar molecule found in brown algae and is similar to some of the extracellular biomolecules found in cartilage. The team chemically modified the molecule by adding sulfate groups, before adding it to cell cultures to observe the reactions of different types of cells.

The scientists found that in both human cartilage cells and macrophages, "the scavenger cells" of our immune system, the modified molecule suppressed inflammatory reaction and down-regulated the expression of genes that trigger inflammation. It also reduced oxidative stress, which is a big cause of cell damage and death. The more sulfate groups added to the molecule, the stronger this reaction.

The way the researchers see it, all of these factors combined mean that the modified molecules should be able to slow down cartilage degeneration. But there is a ways to go before they get conclusive answers. The molecules have so far only been tested in the lab with cell cultures.

But buoyed by its promising results, the team will continue to research the molecules, with the next step to involve testing on animals. If that proves successful, human trials will follow and possibly some years down the track, treatment on arthritis patients.

The research was published in the journal Biomaterials Science.

Source: Empa