A miracle jab that could ease the misery of arthritis for millions of sufferers has been developed by scientists.
The breakthrough may reduce the need for hip and knee replacement surgery that cost the NHS more than £1 billion a year.
It is based on a protein that boosts cartilage generation and reduces inflammation of joints.
Experiments on rats and human cells were so successful human trials are now being planned.
Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, claim it opens the door to a patient with arthritis forgoing an operation in favour of an injection.
Dr Denis Evseenko, study author, said: ‘The goal is to make an injectable therapy for an early to moderate level of arthritis.’
It offers hope to more than eight million people in the UK with osteoarthritis – when the cartilage becomes thin. It is the leading cause of joint pain and stiffness.
Until now, medications have been designed only to help relieve pain but these have side effects including stomach ulcers, high blood pressure and even stroke.
The new therapy could be a game changer in the treatment of the condition.
It also has the potential to treat other painful inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The procedure involves injecting a small molecule into a joint.
Dr Evseenko and colleagues discovered it enhances cartilage regeneration while decreasing inflammation.
They are optimistic after ‘auspicious early results’ that have been reported in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Diseases.
After application to joint cartilage cells in the laboratory, they proliferated more and died less.
And when injected into the knees of rats with damaged cartilage, the animals could more effectively heal their injuries.
Dr Evseenko said: ‘It is not going to cure arthritis, but it will delay the progression of arthritis to the damaging stages when patients need joint replacements, which account for a million surgeries a year in the US.’
About 160,000 hip and knee replacements a year are carried out by the NHS in England and Wales, with the figure rising by roughly eight per cent annually as the population ages.
As its name implies, the new molecule RCGD 423 (Regulator of Cartilage Growth and Differentiation) fuels regeneration while curbing inflammation.
It exerts its effects by communicating with a specific protein in the body. This molecule, called GP130 (glycoprotein 130) receptor, receives two very different types of signals.
These promote cartilage development in the embryo, and trigger chronic inflammation in the adult.
The study showed RCGD 423 amplifies the Gp130 receptor’s ability to receive the developmental signals that can stimulate cartilage regeneration.
At the same time it blocks the inflammatory signals that can lead to cartilage degeneration over the long term.
The team is already laying the groundwork for a clinical trial to test RCGD 423, or a similar molecule, as a treatment for osteoarthritis or juvenile arthritis.
Dr Evseenko sees RCGD 423 as a prototype for a new class of anti-inflammatory drugs with a very broad range of uses.
His lab has already developed several structural analogs of RCGD 423 with varying biological effects and potency.
In a previous study, published in Nature Cell Biology, RCGD 423 was shown to activate stem cells to make hair grow.
The lab is partnering with other scientists to explore the broader potential of these molecules.
This includes using them to treat rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, neurological, heart diseases and baldness.