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Body clock study unlocks prospect of new treatments for osteoarthritis

Published on 15 December 2015

An alarm clock next to a sleeping womanOne of our research fellows has revealed that the painful and debilitating symptoms endured by people with osteoarthritis are intrinsically linked to the human body clock.

Dr Qing-Jun Meng's study could pave the way for drug treatment for the joint condition, which affects eight million people in the UK.

His research findings, jointly funded by us and the Medical Research Council, are published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Dr Meng, a senior research fellow at The University of Manchester, said: “We've identified a link between the human body clock and osteoarthritis.This could unlock the prospect of drugs which reset the body-clock mechanism."We've identified a link between the body clock and osteoarthritis.This could unlock the prospect of drugs which reset the body-clock mechanism."Dr Qing-Jun Meng

“Scientists are already developing drugs which can act in this way for other conditions. Now, osteoarthritis can be part of this effort.

Self-help methods using the body clock

Dr Meng also said that people with arthritis could use their body clock to help ease symptoms: “There are also other body-clock related approaches which can help osteoarthritis sufferers. Eating and exercising at set regular times each day is also something we think is a good idea.

“Using heat pads that approximate body temperature changes in cartilage tissue – which are too governed by the body clock – are also potentially useful.”

Controlling the balance between wear and repair

Dr Meng discovered that body clocks within cartilage cells – or chondrocytes – control thousands of genes which segregate different biological activities at different times of the day.

The body clock, he realised, controls the equilibrium between when chondrocyte cells are repaired during rest and when they are worn down through activity.

His research revealed that as we age, our cartilage cell body clocks deteriorate, making the repair function insufficient, which could contribute to osteoarthritis.

Dr Meng’s team examined three types of human cartilage under the microscope: normal, mildly affected by osteoarthritis and severely affected.

As the osteoarthritis became more severe, the number of cells that express BMAL1 – a protein which controls the body clock – became less and less.

Ageing as a risk factor

And in terms of ageing, he found similar reduction of BMAL1 in chondrocytes, which coincided with the reduced ‘amplitude’ of the body clock (up to 40% weaker in older mice), supporting the theory that ageing, at least partially through dysregulation of the chondrocyte clocks, is a major risk factor for osteoarthritis.

Stephen Simpson, our director of research and programmes, said: “Many people with arthritis find that their symptoms get worse at certain times of the day and the results of this interesting and exciting study reveal a likely biological basis to this effect.

“It's important to understand the role that the body’s circadian rhythm (our inbuilt body clock) has in maintaining healthy joint tissue and how disruptions to this process could contribute to the development of osteoarthritis. An exciting prospect is that it may be possible to use this new information improve treatments and pain relief for the millions of people affected by this debilitating condition.”

For more information, go to www.arthritisresearchuk.org.
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