Arthritis affects one in every five people in the United States. It’s estimated that by 2030, 67 million people in the United States will have arthritis. With so many people suffering from arthritis-related pain, scientists working with arthritis research are constantly studying the disease to find new ways of preventing and treating it.

Recent arthritis research has identified a surprising risk factor.

In a study conducted by the University of Toronto, researchers found that parental addiction can increase the risk of adult arthritis. Specifically, it was found that growing up in a home with at least one parent with a drug or alcohol addiction increased a person’s risk for adult arthritis by 58%, after adjusting for age, race, and sex. When the researchers also adjusted for income, education, childhood maltreatment, mood disorders, and poor health behaviors (obesity, smoking, etc.), parental addiction still increased the risk of adult arthritis by 30%.

However, the study also notes that it’s still unclear whether parental addiction actually causes arthritis or if the two factors simply tend to co-occur, stating that:

“Future prospective studies are needed because the survey nature of the data makes it impossible to determine whether the relationship between parental addictions and arthritis is causal.”

Risk factors for arthritis can be divided into two groups: modifiable and non-modifiable. Parental addiction and some other risk factors, such as gender and family history, aren’t modifiable.

However, there are several risk factors that can be modified to lessen the likelihood of developing arthritis.

For example, while addiction to alcohol carries a host of risks—both to the addicted individual and to his or her family—one study has found that moderate alcohol consumption may actually lower the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The study, which was originally published on the British Medical Journal website, followed participants for seven years, tracking both alcohol consumption and diagnoses of rheumatoid arthritis. Because women are three times more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, the participants in the study were women.

It was found that women who consumed more than three drinks per week were less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis. One drink was defined as 500 ml of beer, 150 ml of wine, or 50 ml of liquor, but the results were the same regardless of which type of alcohol was consumed. The study’s authors suggested that this lessened risk of rheumatoid arthritis may be because alcohol can lower the body’s immune response, and rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the joints.

Another potential way that women can lower their risk of rheumatoid arthritis is by breastfeeding their children. Most pro-breastfeeding arguments tend to focus on benefits to the baby, but a study published in the journal Rheumatology discovered that breastfeeding can seriously impact a woman’s risk for rheumatoid arthritis. The study analyzed survey and questionnaire results from more than 7,000 women and found that:

“Among women who had at least one live birth, and after adjusting for potential confounding factors, those who had ever breastfed were around half as likely to have RA. Furthermore, there was a statistically significant trend of decreasing risk of RA with increasing duration of breastfeeding.”

The study also found that use of contraceptive pills had no impact on the risk for rheumatoid arthritis. According to researchers, these results emphasize the importance of further research on the role of hormonal changes that affect rheumatoid arthritis development.

Arthritis can’t always be prevented, but researchers are constantly finding newer, more effective treatments.

One of the issues faced by many people with arthritis is bone loss. This bone loss may occur naturally as a result of age or degeneration, or it may occur as a result of some arthritis treatments. For example, glucocorticoid medications are a common treatment for arthritis because, as a steroid, glucocorticoids can reduce painful inflammation. Glucocorticoids are also used to slow the progression of some diseases, particularly rheumatoid arthritis. However, glucocorticoids can also cause bone loss.

At the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University, researchers have discovered that a small protein called GILZ is able to reduce both bone loss and inflammation, without the sometimes harmful side effects of glucocorticoids. The protein GILZ is naturally produced in the body. Its production is actually induced by natural, bodily-produced glucocorticoids.

The mice used in this arthritis research, however, had been bred to have a tendency to overexpress the GILZ protein. Therefore, the next step for these researchers is developing an oral medication, rather than a genetic alteration, that can increase GILZ expression.

Another potential new class of drugs to treat arthritis inflammation was identified in a study originally published by The American Journal of Pathology. In this study, researchers considered periodontal bone disease (bone loss in teeth and their sockets) that was caused by arthritis treatments that lessen inflammation, such as the steroid dexamethasone. A new class of drugs called DTrp8-ɣMSH (DTrp) acts on the melanocortin (MC) system.

The melanocortin system is responsible for a wide variety of functions, from pigmentation to inflammation to sexual function. The new drug DTrp is a peptide that selectively activates MC3 receptors, which encourages bone formation. Researchers compared the results of treating mice with dexamethasone to the results of DTrp. Mice treated with dexamethasone experienced relief from arthritis inflammation, but they also experienced worse periodontal bone loss. The mice treated with DTrp, though, experienced both lessened arthritis symptoms and lessened bone loss.

According to this arthritis research, a class of drugs that works on the MC system to encourage the body to heal itself could be more effective and have less side effects than current medications, as well as treat multiple co-existing inflammatory conditions. Additionally, these new sorts of drugs might be more cost-effective for both pharmacological companies and patients.

A lot of arthritis research focuses on treating its symptoms and slowing its progression, but one group of researchers may have found a long-term cure for rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers at ETH Zurich, one of the leading science and technology universities, have found a long-term cure for rheumatoid arthritis in mice. They accomplished this by using an active substance that consists of two fused components. The first component is the immune messenger interleukin 4 (IL-4), which has been previously shown to protect mice with rheumatoid arthritis against bone and cartilage damage. The IL-4 is combined with an antibody that binds to a protein only found in inflamed tissue in certain diseases.

Injection of this fused compound slowed the progression of the mice’s rheumatoid arthritis, as did the injection of the steroid dexamethasone. However, the results were significantly different when the fused compound and dexamethasone were used simultaneously, as stated in the study:

“In contrast, the typical signs of arthritis, such as swollen toes and paws, disappeared completely within a few days when both medications were administered at the same time. Concentrations of a whole range of immune messengers in blood and inflamed tissue, which are changed in rheumatoid arthritis, returned to their normal levels.”

One of the study’s lead authors even went so far as to say that this combined treatment is a “long-term cure” for the mice. Additionally, because this new drug therapy is injected directly to the affected area of the body, the medications stay where they’re needed and have a relatively low risk of side effects. Philochem, which worked on the study with ETC, will begin human clinical trials with this new drug combination in the next year.

What recent arthritis research are you excited about?

Image by US Army Africa via Flickr

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