One is developing a drug to attack the disease.
The other is designing an innovative way to deliver it.
In an example of research matchmaking at its finest, Physiology and Pharmacology professor Frank Beier and Chemistry professor Elizabeth Gillies have joined forces to tackle the debilitating effects of osteoarthritis.
That work was recently honoured by not only the Arthritis Society of Canada, but by patients wrestling daily with the disease.
Impacting more than four million Canadians, Osteoarthritis occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of bones wears down over time. Most commonly, it affects joints in your hands, knees, hips and spine.
It is an active disease with a number metabolic and biomechaincal processes at its root, making research a complex endeavour, Beier said.
“There’s pain medication, but that doesn’t affect the cause in terms of the disease,” he said. “Tissue breakdown and biological changes lead to the pain. After awhile, the medication will stop working and the pain will return.”
Looking to “interfere with the disease-causing mechanisms,” his team is determining if using drugs designed to block a protein called PPARdelta will slow the progression of the disease.
He continued, “The pain is just an outcome; it’s not causing the arthritis. We want to go to the root. Our approach is to go directly to the cause, interfere and block the tissue changes. If we can stop the disease then the pain won’t happen.”
While other scientists are working on new treatments for osteoarthritis, drugs that circulate throughout the whole body often have undesirable side effects, such as muscle loss or affecting organs such as the liver.
This is where the partnership with Gillies began.
“There are molecules that can interact with the receptors. But those receptors are not just in the knee or the hip – they are throughout the body,” she said. “If you administer the drugs systemically, it will go everywhere and have side effects. That’s why we wanted to develop a local-delivery system.
To help address the issues, Gillies is working towards developing a new delivery method for an anti-inflammatory drug. Her method converts the drug into tiny particles that could be injected directly into the joint to help minimize side effects and maximize benefits.
She continued, “Think about post-traumatic osteoarthritis, such as your knee. You could have a targeted therapy that releases the drugs specifically there – it would be a higher concentration at the target and a much lower concentration throughout the rest of the body.”
For their collaborative research, the pair were recently honoured by the Arthritis Society of Canada as one of the Top 10 Research Advancements of 2019. On top of that, the public then voted the Western pair’s work as the Top Consumer Choice.
Collaborators Mark Hurtig, a veterinarian at the University of Guelph, and Western PhD student Ian Villamagna also played significant roles in the research.
“To make a product that would reach the market for these patients, especially since it was patients who selected our work, it means you’re working on a problem that is important and has relevance to them,” Gillies said.
Work such as this can be a difficult, but, at the same time, satisfying because of the possibilities, Beier added. “This is one the exciting things about doing research – we can follow our interests and do this kind of work that might one day benefit millions of people,” he said.
The Arthritis Society of Canada also lauded Medical Biophysics professor Matthew Teeter for his work around wearable sensors used in preoperative assessment of arthritis sufferers preparing for knee-replacement surgery.