Inflammatory joint disease, or arthritis, is a common, growing affliction in elderly people. In a survey, roughly 39% of people over the age of 60 said they had some form of arthritis including osteoarthritis, which causes painful wear and tear of the body’s joints.
Interestingly, researchers at the University Department of Orthopedics at the MedUni in Austria have discovered a factor they believe plays an important role in osteoarthritis development.
They were investigating the biological role of a type of lectin known as galectins. Lectins are highly specific sugar-binding proteins that play a role in biological recognition between cells and proteins. For example, some viruses are known to use lectins to attach themselves to the cells of their host organism during infection.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that galectins may play a role in cancer, immunity, inflammation, and development - although it’s not quite clear what exactly they do. In fact, they seem to be involved in a bewildering array of activities both inside and outside cells.
For instance, the exact underlying cause of osteoarthritis (other than known risk factors such as age or earlier injury) is not yet known. Now the information obtained by the Austrian researchers shows that galectins play a prominent role in the development of this painful condition that leads to premature wear and tear in joints.
They found that the more badly worn the cartilage of a joint, the greater the amount of galectins present - which seems to trigger both degenerative and inflammatory processes in cartilage cells. These findings could lead to galectins being used as biomarkers to predict its presence and progression over time. At the same time, anti-galectin agents will likely be considered for treating osteoarthritis.
More recent studies indicate that galectins may play a role in controlling the immune system. For this reason too, experts believe that a better understanding of this family of proteins will open new avenues for innovative drug discovery.