As reported by the Republican-American, March 16, 2008.

UConn Researchers Take First Step Toward Arthritis Treatment

By Ben Conery

FARMINGTON - If the quest to find a treatment for debilitating arthritis using embryonic stem cells is a journey of a thousand miles, then a team of researchers from the University of Connecticut has taken the first, albeit small, steps.

But they are steps no one else has taken.

The research team, Robert Kosher, Caroline Dealy, Deborah Ferrari and Guochun Gong, says it has been able to turn embryonic stem cells into the cells that make up cartilage, which is the tissue at the surface of joints that allows movement. Although the team is greatly encouraged by it's initial success, the results of their work have not yet been published or reviewed by other scientists, the standard for acceptable research.

"I guess we got lucky," Kosher said last week from a conference room in the imposing UConn Health Center. "For a change, our hypothesis worked."

The team's work could became important in the future creation of a treatment for osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that is caused by the breakdown of cartilage which afflicts more than 20 million Americans, including most people older than 60.

But David Rowe, who oversees these researchers, cautioned that any potential benefits to people with arthritis is years away.

Rowe supervises researchers at UConn that have received $3.8 million in grants as part of the state's pledge to put $100 million into stem cell research in the next decade.

"A technical mini-advance that may or may not be of value going forward..., we just don't know," is how Rowe described the team's work. "It's a baby step in the right direction."

Kosher, a developmental biologist who studies limb development in embryos, and his team mimicked the conditions in an embryo to turn embryonic stem cells into the cells that form cartilage. Specifically, they packed the stem cells close together and then added growth proteins that caused the change.

The team started working with stem cells in December, and achieved results by late January. Kosher said the results came as many as three years ahead of schedule.

No other scientists have published results indicating the same success from similar experiments.

Next, the team plans to work with bioengineers and orthopedic surgeons who also work at the UConn Health Center, which they say gives them an advantage in this type of research.

Kosher said the team will get human cartilage samples from the orthopedic surgeons and work with the bioengineers to create what he called "scaffolding," a process to get the created cartilage cells into existing cartilage cells.

Such a process could be critical to potential treatment because cartilage degeneration causes osteoarthritis, and adding new cartilage cells could alleviate the symptoms.

But even if that hypothesis is true, human treatment would still be years away. So far, no human trials have been conducted using treatments derived from embryonic stem cells.

Before human trials would even be possible, scientists must find a way to ensure a patient's body would accept the cells derived from embryonic stem cells. Such research is under way by many scientists and there has been some promising preliminary results, Rowe said.

While embryonic stem cell research remains controversial -- opponents argue that extracting stem cells from embryos amounts to murder -- the work of Kosher's team shows some of the promise researchers believe stem cells hold because these cells can form any kind of tissue or cell found in humans.

Kosher said he never considered working with embryonic stem cells until the state offered money for such research. After that happened, his theory about potential for stem cells to treat osteoarthritis fell into place. It's the first time his research has had a stated goal of providing treatment for patients.

With a second round of state funding coming in months, Dealy, a team member who is also married to Kosher, said the group hopes to get funding to study whether they can turn embryonic stem cells into the specific type of cartilage found in joints and whether that could lead to a more effective treatment for osteoarthritis.

"It's just exciting ... that what we're learning has such tangible human benefits," she said.