ST. LOUIS – Dr. Farshid Guilak came from Duke University to St. Louis five and a half years ago to be the director of research at Shriners Hospitals for Children in St. Louis. That decision would eventually lead to a breakthrough in the cause and treatment of arthritis, a painful joint condition that affects more than 54 million people in the US annually.
“Children and adults who are obese have more arthritis in their hands, for example,” says Dr. Guilak. “Athletes who load their joints, load them much more than children who are overweight. So, we wanted to know the role of fat in arthritis.”
Guilak and his researchers discovered a link between arthritis and signals from fat cells. This research will help doctors identify and treat the cause of arthritis in children.
“One of the greatest risks for arthritis is obesity and, as we all know, there is an epidemic in childhood obesity and parental obesity, which gets transferred back down to the child unfortunately,” Guilak said.
Through the study, the doctor and his team of researchers bred lab mice with no fat.
“What we found is they’re virtually immune to arthritis and having that fat in your body is probably one of the reasons that we get arthritis. So, to prove that what we did was take those fat free mice and just put a small piece of fat – one gram. Without changing their body weight, all that susceptibility to arthritis came back,” Guilak said.
“So, what we’ve learned now is it’s the fat itself which makes you susceptible to arthritis and the molecules given off from that fat, we can now develop therapies that can interfere with those signaling molecules to help prevent arthritis in these children.
“One of the most compelling things about our research laboratory is that it’s right in the middle of the hospital,” says Guilak. “So every day when we come to work and walk into our laboratory, we see those patients and they’re right outside our laboratories. And there’s few things more motivating that to see these children who need orthopedic and muscular-skeletal care. And we want to develop the next generation of therapies for that.”