Gel to Fight Rheumatoid Arthritis?
After living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for almost a decade, I’m pretty familiar with all of the treatment options currently available. In fact, I’ve tried more than half of the most effective medications personally! Since I know I’ll likely need treatment for the rest of my life, I’m always excited to see more options coming down the pipeline – particularly if they hold scientific promise.
A new study from the Center for Self-Assembly and Complexity at the Institute for Basic Science in Daejeon, South Korea presents just that kind of possibility. Scientists have developed a potentially therapeutic gel, which could target nitric oxide, absorb excess fluids, and deliver medications directly to affected joints. Recently reported in the journal Advanced Materials, this innovative hydrogel might offer a new pathway to treating RA. Here’s how it works:
When someone is living with RA, their immune system mistakenly attacks healthy joint tissues, which can lead to a buildup of synovial fluid. While synovial fluid normally helps lubricate joints and make it easier for us to move, an excess of this fluid can actually cause swelling and pain. Most currently available RA treatments are anti-inflammatory medications, meaning that they target specific components of the immune system and attempt to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. But the hydrogel takes a novel approach.
Nitric oxide (NO) is a crucial signaling molecule that has various positive functions in your body. However, NO can also be created in excess by immune cells at inflamed joints. Previous studies have suggested that overproduction of NO may be a key player in RA (and also in systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE). In the new study, scientists took on the challenge of targeting the NO itself, which is particularly difficult as it is a transient gas that stays in circulation for less than 10 seconds before binding to other molecules.
The scientists were able to develop a hydrogel that responds to the presence of NO. Hydrogels were the first biomaterials designed for use in the human body. It’s a jelly-like material that maintains a distinct three-dimensional structure at the molecular level. To simplify a complicated concept, the gel works by “puffing up” when NO is in its environment – but it still keeps its original shape no matter what other gas is present. As it “puffs up” it creates a kind of net, which traps the toxic NO. As the NO attaches to the net, the gel changes its structure and can release targeted drug molecules into the joint instead.
It’s a bit complicated and confusing, but the important piece of information is that this treatment option shows potential. The researchers next plan to test a nano-sized form of the hydrogel in mouse models of RA. If that works, they may be able to move on to creating a human model – and, eventually, a treatment option that might someday work for one of us!
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