Spotlight on Research for 2004

February 2004 (historical)

OA Biomarkers Network: A New Way to Study Disintegrating Joints

To hasten the pace of discovery of molecular biomarkers for osteoarthritis (OA), the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) has established the Osteoarthritis Biomarkers Network: five institutions in the United States and Sweden received grants totaling $4.6 million over 5 years.

For the first time, researchers who have been individually studying OA biomarkers--molecular indicators of disease presence and progression--will share clinical, biological and human resources. Through the Network, investigators will learn more about joint destruction by identifying and monitoring biomarkers in joint, bone and synovial tissues. This could provide the clues needed to define the stages of disease on a more consistent and reliable basis.

The Network involves the following projects:

Transcriptome-Based Biomarkers in Human Osteoarthritis, Steven Abramson, M.D., Hospital for Joint Diseases, New York, N.Y. Using an arthritis database and tissue bank of 500 OA patients, this study will apply genomic technology to identify biomarkers in certain white blood cells.

FRZB Profiles as Osteoarthritis Biomarkers, Maripat Corr, M.D., University of California, San Diego. This study, which includes women with hip OA, will look at whether variations in certain genes involved in developing and maintaining joints and bones can serve as biomarkers of OA.

Biomarkers in Osteoarthritis MRI Studies, David Felson, M.D., M.P.H., Boston University, MA. Using data from two natural history studies of knee OA, this project will characterize biomarkers associated with cartilage loss. Researchers will use magnetic resonance imaging to look, for example, at whether an increase in cartilage degrading products that result from the natural aging process can predict cartilage loss.

Novel OA Markers by Integrating Basic Biology and Clinic, Dick Heinegard, M.D., Ph.D., Lund University, Sweden. This study seeks to develop new diagnostic procedures for OA by identifying and examining molecular markers of cartilage and bone involved in the emergence of OA. Researchers will also look at developing and evaluating blood tests for newly identified markers in patients and animal models.

Determination of OA Pathology by Biomarker Dating, Virginia Kraus, M.D., Ph.D., Duke University, Durham, N.C. Using a "biomarker dating" technique, researchers will examine whether the amount of an amino acid found in cartilage indicates the excessive loss of the protein collagen that might be elevated in people with OA.

Lead researchers, along with NIAMS staff, will make up a Network Steering Committee that will coordinate the work of the Network and other ongoing OA studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Outcomes from the Network's research will determine if future projects are needed for biomarker validation and the establishment of a data management and coordinating center.

The grants were awarded in response to a 2003 Request for Applications, "Ostoearthritis Biomarkers Network" (

Osteoarthritis is a disease of wear and tear on the joints. Its progression causes severe pain that results from degraded cartilage, broken-down bone (which creates bony spurs) and sometimes thickened and inflamed synovial tissue. For the 20 million Americans affected, this disease can limit daily activities such as walking, climbing stairs and dressing. Diagnosing the disease in its early stages and monitoring its progression has been a problem.

Currently, OA is diagnosed through a series of assessments, including a medical history, physical exams and laboratory tests. The disease is confirmed when a radiographic image (e.g., x ray) shows narrowed joint space due to cartilage loss, bony spurs, or cysts that may be seen in a bone just beneath the joint surfaces. X rays are also used to monitor disease progression; however, they are not as reliable as molecular biomarkers are thought to be. Images from x rays cannot show small changes in the joint, so it may take from one to three years for joint deterioration to be detected. With the use of sensitive assays to recognize biomarkers in body fluids, researchers could identify early signs of disease and standardize measures of progression, which could then increase the predictive power needed for clinical trials of new treatments.

The mission of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part of the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health, is to support research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of arthritis and musculoskeletal and skin diseases, the training of basic and clinical scientists to carry out this research, and the dissemination of information on research progress in these diseases. For more information about NIAMS, call the information clearinghouse at (301) 495-4484 or (877) 22-NIAMS (free call) or visit the NIAMS Web site at