UNC-TV Science: Chemical Exercise May Help Rebuild Cartilage

UNC-TV Science: January 16, 2014
Chemical Exercise May Help Rebuild Cartilage

Cartilage: everybody’s favorite connective tissue. This not-quite-bone substance makes up our ears, the springy part of our noses and sometimes pads the connections between our bones to keep them from rubbing against each other. 

As we age, the cartilage in or joints can deteriorate, either from hard use or from sitting around too much, and when that cartilage gets too thin, joints can develop osteoarthritis, which affects 27 million Americans.

Cartilage is also notoriously tricky to regrow. We know that physical activity triggers cartilage cells, signaling them to make more of the connective tissue. Physical activity, however, can be difficult for people with osteoarthritis, and for many, physical activity is what wore down the cartilage in the first place.

Christopher O’Conor, an MD/PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill who is currently studying at Duke University, may have found a way to trick our bodies into thinking that we’ve exercised and into making more cartilage.

O’Conor and Farshid Guilak, PhD discovered that exercise, which stretches and compresses cartilage, activates a protein channel in cartilage cells called TRPV4. When TRPV4 is active, the cells produce more cartilage. So O’Conor and Guilak used a chemical to activate TRPV4 in cartilage cells harvested from pigs, and not only did those cells build cartilage, they built more than the cells that they “exercised.”

Now, this chemical exercise method won’t help you lose weight or give you a six-pack, but the ability to regrow cartilage in patients with osteoarthritis might help them to more easily move around. The next step in this research is an experiment with human cartilage cells. The research was published in the Proceedings of the Naitonal Academy of Sciences.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.