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Bristol researchers aim to develop new blood tests to diagnose osteoarthritis

Image of Dr Mohammed Sharif

Dr Mohammed Sharif, Senior Lecturer in the School of Clinical Sciences

Press release issued: 24 April 2014

Researchers at the University of Bristol are hoping to develop new blood tests that would help to diagnose and monitor the common joint condition, osteoarthritis.

More than eight million people in the UK are affected by osteoarthritis, which occurs when cartilage at the ends of bones wears away, leading to stiff, swollen and painful joints. There is currently little effective treatment other than painkillers and joint replacement for patients with most severe disease.

Now a team led by Dr Mohammed Sharif, Senior Lecturer in the School of Clinical Sciences, have been awarded almost £300,000 by medical research charity Arthritis Research UK to find out if two new biomarkers (specific physical traits used to measure or indicate the effects or progress of a disease) found in the blood of patients with osteoarthritis can be used not only to diagnose the condition but also inform doctors which patients are likely to get worse over time, and who is likely to benefit from specific treatments.

At present there are no simple tests for the early diagnosis of osteoarthritis, and usually by the time a definitive diagnosis is made using x-rays, the disease is in its advanced stages. Moreover, there are currently no means of predicting how it will develop or respond to therapy. Biomarkers could be used to identify patients in the early stages of osteoarthritis or those who will worsen over time, but current biomarkers are not good enough to perform these tasks reliably.

 “There’s an urgent need to find new and better biomarkers, and we’ve now identified two that are likely to prove useful for diagnosis and monitoring of osteoarthritis,” explained Dr Sharif.

“However, we need to be sure they will be good enough for use in an individual patient. Therefore in this research project we hope to find out whether they can reliably distinguish between a healthy person and a person with osteoarthritis, identify which patients’ condition will get worse, and whether a particular drug is working or not.”

Osteoarthritis-specific biomarkers will enable doctor to direct specific treatment options such as physiotherapy towards those patients most likely to benefit, and may also help to identify early who will require a joint replacement.

The Bristol team have been working on biomarkers for osteoarthritis for many years, but say that new state-of-the art technology now available has greatly increased their chances of developing novel biomarkers specific for osteoarthritis. The team now also have access to large numbers of highly characterised blood samples from one of the largest cohort of osteoarthritis patients and matched controls, from the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the USA. The samples from the NIH will be used for final validation of the diagnostic tests currently being developed in Bristol.

 “Overall our study should have a major long-term impact on how the NHS manage and treat patients with osteoarthritis,” added Dr Sharif.

Arthritis Research UK is the leading authority on arthritis in the UK, conducting scientific and medical research into all types of arthritis and related musculoskeletal conditions. It is the UK’s fourth largest medical research charity and the only charity solely committed to funding high quality research into the cause, treatment and cure of arthritis. Arthritis Research UK receives no government funding and relies on the generosity of public donations to find its research programmes.

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