New Research Center to Address Osteoarthritis

A new multidisciplinary clinical research center at the University — funded by a $5.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health — is being created to seek better ways to address the costly public health issue of osteoarthritis.

Arthritis affects 50 million people in the U.S., with more than 27 million of those suffering the disabling pain of OA, a form of arthritis that causes joint swelling and degeneration. These numbers are expected to grow significantly as the population ages and gets heavier; extra weight puts additional strain on joints, especially knees and hips.

“We know that arthritis is the leading cause of disability among older adults,” said Dr. Joanne Jordan ’91 (MPH), principal investigator for the grant and director of UNC’s Thurston Arthritis Research Center. “With this grant, we plan to create a true multidisciplinary hub for OA and musculoskeletal research here at UNC — one that leverages our research, clinical, education and training strengths across disciplines to better understand and treat this chronic and often debilitating disease.” Jordan also is chief of the division of rheumatology, allergy and immunology in the UNC School of Medicine’s department of medicine.

The new MCRC will take a three-pronged approach to mitigating the public health impact of osteoarthritis:

  • Understanding what causes and contributes to developing arthritis and resulting disability;
  • Identifying best practices to help communities address this public health issue; and
  • Transforming the face of arthritis research on campus by serving as a center for innovation, training and collaboration.

“We will build on our existing strengths, including the long-term community project in Johnston County, where we have been working with residents since 1991,” Jordan said. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has helped support the program, describes it as “a unique, community-based, longitudinal study of approximately 3,200 rural white and black residents aged 45 and older, followed for over 20 years.”

The Johnston County study now includes hand, foot, spine, shoulder and ankle OA; osteoporosis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions. It has been the source of more than 30 other studies examining risk factors for OA, such as diet, occupational demands, physical activity, genetics and environmental exposures to metals and others. The study also has housed several clinical trials and community interventions for arthritis.

The multidisciplinary clinical research center includes two new research studies. The first, also based in Johnston County, will look at ways a spouse or other committed partner can help people with knee or hip OA become more physically active.

The second study builds on the multisite Joint Undertaking to Monitor and Prevent Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury, or JUMP-ACL. The collaborative program is looking at risk factors for injury to the ACL, one of the knee’s major ligaments, among cadets in U.S. military academies. ACL injuries have been linked to early-onset osteoarthritis.

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