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You don't want to get your balloons popped!

By Hansen Kosasih, PhD Student - Arthritis & Rheumatology

More than three million people in Australia have some form of arthritic disease, making it one of the most prevalent health conditions in Australia. Arthritis can affect people at any age and the term “arthritis” itself covers more than 100 medical conditions that affect bones, muscles, cartilage (a tough, elastic, fibrous “connective” tissue found in various parts of the body, such as the joints, outer ear), and other connective tissues. The three most well-known arthritic diseases are the adult diseases osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and juvenile arthritis, the last which can also affect children.

The end-point of any arthritic disease is the destruction of cartilage in the joints. Joint cartilage is a specialised tissue that covers the end of the bones, providing a frictionless surface and weight-bearing property during movement. This cartilage mainly consists of water and two important molecules called aggrecan and type II collagen. Aggrecan attracts water to the cartilage to provide a swelling pressure that resists loading, whereas type II collagen provides the structural integrity of the cartilage.

The arrangement of these molecules can be represented by a string-balloon model, where a piece of string denotes the type II collagen and the balloons represent aggrecan.  When a few balloons are arranged side-by-side and tightly wrapped by a piece of string, this structure can bear weight. However, if a needle is used to pop some balloons, the whole structure collapses, and loses its weight bearing property.

This is similar to what happens in arthritis where the needle is actually an enzyme called ADAMTS-5, which degrades the aggrecan, resulting in the destruction of cartilage and its ability to resist weight. The lack of cushioning property in the cartilage is one of the reasons why arthritic patients cannot move freely.

In my current research, I am investigating the mode of action of ADAMTS-5, and I hope that I can contribute to the field a new approach to inhibit the overactivity of this destructive enzyme in arthritis. If we can selectively inhibit this enzyme, hopefully we can avoid the destruction of the cartilage in arthritic patients, and make the patients, especially the children, dance happily again!

Remember, although popping some balloon is fun, you definitely do not want to get your balloons popped!

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