Researchers at the University of Aberdeen to work on new treatment for early osteoarthritis

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen to work on new treatment for early osteoarthritis

Arthritis Research UK and the University of Aberdeen are launching a new experimental tissue engineering centre which aims to regenerate bone and cartilage by using patients’ own stem cells* to repair the joint damage caused by osteoarthritis.

The exploratory research has the potential to revolutionise the treatment of osteoarthritis, which causes pain and disability to eight million people in the UK.  Treatments for early osteoarthritis are usually limited to non-surgical options such as pain killers and physiotherapy. Patients currently undergo joint replacement operations but only when the disease has deteriorated to a severe end stage. 

Within five years, researchers aim to treat early osteoarthritis by introducing adult stem cells and other types of cell into damaged joints and repairing damage through less invasive operations such as key-hole surgery.  In future, they hope to perform this as a ‘one stop’ day case procedure, which may delay the need for joint replacement.  Other long term aims include finding a way to ‘switch on’ stem cells already present in patients’ joints.  Researchers also hope to develop an ‘off the peg’ bank of universal donor cells for use with any patient, making treatment cheaper and more widely available.

The move is welcome news for osteoarthritis sufferers like Willie Miller, former Aberdeen Football Club skipper and manager and currently Director of Football Development at the Club, who will lend his support to today’s launch of the Aberdeen arm of the new virtual centre.

The University of Aberdeen is one of the four institutions that make up the new £6 million Arthritis Research UK Tissue Engineering Centre, led by University of Newcastle, to be launched on Thursday October 6. 

Professor Cosimo De Bari, the principal investigator for the Arthritis Research UK Tissue Engineering Centre in Aberdeen, said: “Every patient has their own ‘repair kit.’ Whereas joint replacement uses metal and plastic to replace the severely damaged joint, we’re trying to treat at an earlier stage to assist the human body to repair itself.

“Keyhole and minimally invasive operations for early arthritis have been in development for some years and we propose to improve upon these techniques and work towards more widely available treatments. This requires research at all levels of the process, from laboratory to bedside.  We hope that elements of this approach will reach the patient in the operating theatre within the first five years.”

Professor Alan Silman, medical director of Arthritis Research UK said: “This early experimental work is the first step on a journey that could significantly reduce the need for joint replacement operations.

“It’s hugely exciting. At the moment joint replacement surgery is the most effective treatment we have but we have to allow people with osteoarthritis to deteriorate until they reach a suitable point for surgery. This means patients are living for years with increasing pain and disability which has an impact on their quality of life.”

Willie Miller said: “I have firsthand knowledge of how this affects the quality of life once playing days are over, and I also speak to a lot of ex-players who have been affected to a far greater extent than myself with knee and hip arthritis and are left with the only option of replacement surgery.

“Although it will be too late for ex-players like myself to benefit, this research is really encouraging for future generations of players. Not only could they potentially extend their playing career but equally important is the fact they could significantly increase their quality of life once they have stopped playing.

“Of course it’s not just footballers, there are millions of people in the in the UK who suffer from osteoarthritis.

“Once again Aberdeen is at the forefront of what is groundbreaking research and I am delighted to lend any support I possibly can.”

The Aberdeen team will focus on developing and validating tests which will identify markers in patients’ stem cells before transplantation surgery, allowing doctors to predict the potency of the cells being used.  It is hoped that this will help identify which stem cells will be the most effective and will enable doctors to determine in advance of surgery which patients will have a good repair of the joint surface. This will be done in conjunction with Keele University and the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in Oswestry.

The Aberdeen team will also study the stem cells that are naturally present in the joints, helping devise interventions to delay or even halt the process of osteoarthritis by manipulating and influencing the behaviour of these stem cells, e.g. via medications that target the stem cells in the joints.

Professor David Reid, Professor of Rheumatology and expert in bone and joint disease, at the University of Aberdeen, added: “Osteoarthritis of the hip and knee will be an increasing problem in our society as people age and want to remain active. Although joint replacement can be spectacularly successful, finding an injectable cell-based answer that could be used earlier would be a major breakthrough, reducing pain and disability and minimising health service costs. We believe our new centre will lead the way in this exciting field of research.”

The £6 million Arthritis Research UK Tissue Engineering Centre is based at four sites: Newcastle University, the University of Aberdeen, Keele University/the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in Oswestry and the University of York. Funded by a core grant of £2.5 million over five years from Arthritis Research UK with a further £3.4 million pledged by the four participating universities, the centre will bring together leading clinicians, engineers and biologists from research and clinical groups.

The University of Aberdeen is making a £1.5million investment in the new centre. For more information go to