A research team at the Krembil Research Institute has discovered a pair of tissue biomarkers that directly contribute to the harmful joint degeneration associated with spine osteoarthritis. A biomarker is a characteristic that can be objectively measured and evaluated as an indicator of normal and abnormal biological processes in a person.

The study, published today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight, is the first to show that elevated levels of both of these biomarkers cause inflammation, cartilage destruction and collagen depletion. The team’s groundbreaking work was made possible by supporters of the Campaign to Cure Arthritis and the Krembil Foundation.

“These biomarkers are actively involved in increasing inflammation and destructive activities in spine cartilage and assist in its destruction,” says principal investigator Dr. Mohit Kapoor, a Senior Scientist at the Krembil Research Institute who specializes in arthritis research. “Furthermore, these biomarkers promote cartilage cells to die and deplete the most important component of your cartilage, which is your collagen.”

Working at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital, the research team – led by Dr. Kapoor and comprising Dr. Akihiro Nakamura, a post-doctoral fellow, and Dr. Y. Raja Rampersaud, a clinical expert and spine surgeon – explored the role, function and signaling mechanisms of two tissue biomarkers: microRNA-181a-5p and microRNA-4454.

“These are biologically active molecules. By detecting them in the tissue biopsies, we have a tool for determining the stage of spine osteoarthritis in a patient,” says Dr. Kapoor. “Now that we know what they are, we are currently looking at blocking them and restoring the joint.”

The discovery represents the end of the first stage of research. The team is now investigating whether these biomarkers can be detected in the blood – which would help clinicians more simply determine the stage of spine osteoarthritis – and whether further studying the biomarkers will allow researchers to halt and reverse spine degeneration.

Osteoarthritis affects about three million Canadians. There is currently no known cure.