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$5.5M supports stem cell research project for osteoarthritis


Calgary, AB – A 36-member team that is researching the science and issues connected with osteoarthritis (OA) has formally launched with $5.5 million in funding. The team includes orthopedic surgeons, scientists, rehabilitation specialists, and experts in healthcare design.

The province-wide Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions Alberta Osteoarthritis team is receiving a $500,000 donation from Pfizer Canada for two of the team’s projects: stem cell research into growing new cartilage, and a decision support tool using a dynamic model to plan a sustainable system of care aimed at increasing access and improving outcomes for Albertans with hip and knee OA.

The team also has $5 million in funding over five years from Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AI-HS), with funding support from Alberta Health and Wellness.

“Osteoarthritis is a terrible, progressive disease of joints in which people struggle with increasing pain, swelling and disability until they cannot work, play or function in their lives,” says Dr Cy Frank, team co-leader, and professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Calgary Faculty of Medicine. “I am extremely frustrated with the treatments we are offering our patients right now – we are only treating the symptoms. This team coming together is a fantastic opportunity and gives me hope for real solutions. I want our patients to know that we care, and we’re doing something about this debilitating disease.”

“Pfizer is proud to partner with this world leading group of researchers and clinicians,” says Dr Bernard Prigent, vice president and medical director at Pfizer Canada. “This partnership allows us to support leading translational research in osteoarthritis that will increase our ability to diagnose this devastating, painful disease, identify new treatment algorithms, and improve outcomes for patients through prevention and timely treatment.”

Team also includes collaborators from Toronto, Halifax, Winnipeg, and the United States, and is investigating four diverse research streams: basic research into new treatments and diagnostic tests, research pinpointing who is most at risk of OA and biomarkers that can predict the disease, a system redesign to improve the care pathways for OA, as well as prevention strategies including injury prevention, ‘pre-hab’ before surgery, and weight management for children.

David Hart, PhD, an AI-HS Alberta Osteoarthritis team member, is investigating the use of stem cells to grow artificial cartilage in the lab. In collaboration with colleagues in Japan, his team obtains stem cells from the knees of people with osteoarthritis, grows new knee cartilage in the laboratory, and explores how best to boost the stem cells’ ability to grow and become cartilage for transplantation.

“These knee stem cells ‘like’ to become cartilage. As they grow, we analyze them to see what these cells are really doing, and how they respond to various treatment options,” says Dr Hart, a professor of surgery, medicine, and microbiology & infectious diseases at the University of Calgary. “We are also comparing the stem cells of people with osteoarthritis with the stem cells of people who don’t have the disease. We suspect there is a genetic component here, and that some people may have better stem cells than others. We can also use the stem cells for diagnostic purposes to determine what is going on in people with early osteoarthritis. In that instance, stem cells are like the canary in the coal mine, helping us to make decisions on treatments.”

Lauren Beaupre, PhD, an AI-HS Alberta Osteoarthritis team member at the University of Alberta, is studying how to optimize healing and recovery for people whose osteoarthritis becomes so advanced that they require a hip or knee replacement. As a rehabilitation specialist, Dr Beaupre works on the clinical team that prepares people for surgery, collaborating with surgeons, and creating a ‘pre-hab’ and rehabilitation plan for OA patients.

Deborah Marshall, PhD, also an AI-HS Alberta Osteoarthritis team member, is mapping out an intricate blueprint of the current system of care for people with osteoarthritis in Alberta. In partnership with the Alberta Health Services Bone and Joint Clinical Network, and the Alberta Bone and Joint Health Institute, Marshall’s team is designing a decision support tool with a system dynamic model to explore how the healthcare system can be transformed to increase access, efficiency, and decrease wait times to foster better outcomes for patients.