It could pave the way for people known to be at risk of developing osteoarthritis being given the jab years in advance to prevent it from ever striking. Current treatments can only relieve symptoms.
There is no cure unless people undergo expensive joint replacement operations, which cost the NHS 1 billion pounds a year.
The new study has uncovered a protein which is thought to be able to protect against osteoarthritis by acting as a lubricant between bones in the joint. It also blocks the loss of cartilage, the Daily Express reported.
Injecting the gene which makes the protein in a single jab into a knee joint has been shown to protect it from going on to develop both age and injury-related osteoarthritis.
Around 10 million people in Britain are blighted by arthritis.
Osteoarthritis affects at least 8.5 million, causing pain - usually in the hands, spine, knees and hips - as bones rub against each other as cartilage breaks down.
Rheumatoid arthritis, which is more severe but less common, affects almost 700,000 people. This occurs when the immune system attacks the joints.
The new study has uncovered a protein which is thought to be able to protect against osteoarthritis by acting as a lubricant between bones in the joint.
While gene therapy does not regenerate cartilage that is already lost, the researchers said that this new approach could one day prevent or delay the onset of the disease.
The study by experts from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, reveals that a naturally-occurring protein called lubricin - or Proteoglycans 4 - protects against osteoarthritis.
The study is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.