Researchers used human tissue samples to discover that those with osteoarthritis have a signature epigenetic change, DNA methylation, which is responsible for switching on and off a gene that produces a destructive enzyme called MMP13.
MMP13 is known to play a role in the destruction of joint cartilage, making it and the epigenetic changes that lead to its increased levels, prime targets for osteoarthritis drug development.
In addition to offering a new epigenetic path toward a cure for osteoarthritis, this research also helps show how epigenetic changes play a role in diseases outside of cancer.
"As the population gets older, osteoarthritis presents increasing social and economic problems," David A. Young, a researcher involved in the work from the Musculoskeletal Research Group at the Institute of Cellular Medicine at Newcastle University in Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom, said.
"Our work provides a better understanding of the events that cause cartilage damage during osteoarthritis and provides hope that tailored drug development to prevent the progress of disease will improve the quality of life and mobility of many arthritis sufferers," Young said.
To make the discovery, Young and his colleagues compared the extent to which DNA methylation was different in cartilage from patients suffering from osteoarthritis and healthy people of similar age.
They found that at one small position, the gene for MMP13 had less DNA methylation in diseased patients. Then they confirmed that reduced methylation of this gene increases levels of the destructive enzyme MMP13.
The study has been published online in the FASEB Journal.