White blood cells identified that repair joint damage

The fact that not all macrophages are the same could be good news for rheumatoid arthritis. Patients in long-term remission for rheumatoid arthritis have been found to have a different type of white blood cell known as macrophages. The name 'macrophage' comes from the Greek meaning 'big eater', as these cells are usually responsible for engulfing and destroying rogue and foreign cells such as bacteria. However, some types of macrophage have been found to remove the elements of inflammation that can cause joint pain and the type of joint destruction that would otherwise lead to the need for joint replacement.

This observation reported in Nature Medicine and led by the University of Glasgow in collaboration with Fondazione A.Gemelli IRCCS in Italy and the Versus Arthritis funded Research into Inflammatory Arthritis Centre (RACE), is key to swift treatments to cure the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

The study found that  people with arthritis in long-term remission had a difference in cell function which could settle inflammation and ‘teach’ nearby cells to repair the joint. 

Commenting, consultant rheumatologist, Professor David Reid says, “The potential for influencing the activity of macrophages as an new approach to the long-term management of inflammatory arthritis may open a new era for alternative drugs to manage rheumatoid arthritis”

Damping unpredictable 'flare-ups'

Although treatment for rheumatoid arthritis has improved, some people with the condition do not respond well with many having unpredictable ‘flare-ups’ of the disease. Scientists now hope that by harnessing the benefit of these ‘resolving’ cells it could lead to new and more effective treatments.

The study looked at high resolution molecular images of the joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis in long-term remission. The researchers found that the membrane that protects and lubricates their joints appeared normal in these patients, in contrast to the inflamed, swollen joints of severe arthritis. The researchers found a crucial difference in the functions of cells called macrophages between patients in disease remission compared to patients with active arthritis. In active arthritis these macrophages arrived from blood and caused inflammation and joint damage. People in long-term remission had a different type of macrophage that could resolve inflammation and instruct adjacent cells to repair the joint. 

Lead author Dr. Mariola Kurowska-Stolarska, from University of Glasgow and RACE, said: “The result of this study is a credit to the vision and teamwork of our multinational collaborators. We identified different types of macrophages, and our goal now is to discover treatments that will encourage development of resolving macrophages in the joint. 

“This would be a useful additional strategy to current treatments that calm-down the aggressive macrophages in arthritis. In the meantime, the relative numbers of resolving macrophages or aggressive macrophages in the synovium, or joint, might be a good predictor of flare and an indicator of arthritis patients maintaining remission.”

Natural resolution of inflammation

Prof Iain B McInnes, Director of the Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation at the University of Glasgow and RACE, said: “For many years we have focussed our research efforts on the pathways that switch on inflammation in the joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis – and this new study is remarkable in showing us how natural resolution of inflammation occurs. This gives us new clues as to how we can best design new treatments to achieve remission -our long-standing goal!”

Head of Research Engagement, Versus Arthritis, Natalie Carter said: “Of people experiencing chronic pain every day, 8 in 10 of them have arthritis. Despite improved treatments for inflammatory arthritis there are still many people with the condition who live in persistent pain because they don’t respond to new therapies. For people with rheumatoid arthritis, tackling inflammation early and effectively is the surest way to ensure that joint damage is kept to a minimum and they can lead full and active lives". 

“By finding the exact immune cells present when people with arthritis go into remission after successful treatment, we have a potential key to open up a future world where people can move swiftly from the persistent pain caused by arthritis to treatments that work best for them.” 

About Versus Arthritis

There are 18.8 million people living with a musculoskeletal (MSK) condition like arthritis in the UK. That’s one in four people, with half of those living in pain every single day. The impact is huge as the condition intrudes on everyday life – affecting the ability to work, care for a family, to move free from pain and to live independently. 

An abbreviation for angiotensin-converting enzyme Full medical glossary
Inflammation of one or more joints of the body. Full medical glossary
A group of organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye, which are usually made up of just a single cell. Full medical glossary
A fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of all living organisms. Full medical glossary
A disease of long duration generally involving slow changes. Full medical glossary
Term to describe an episode when the symptoms of a condition worsen. Full medical glossary
Term to describe episodes when the symptoms of a condition worsen. Full medical glossary
A viral infection affecting the respiratory system. Full medical glossary
The body’s response to injury. Full medical glossary
A large cell that is present in many different organs and tissues. One of its functions is the removal of bacteria and other foreign bodies from the body. Full medical glossary
multiple sclerosis Full medical glossary
Relating to the skeleton and its attached muscles, cartilage, tendons and ligaments that gives structure to the body and enables movement Full medical glossary
A condition resulting in brittle bones due to loss of bony tissue. Full medical glossary
rheumatoid arthritis Full medical glossary
The lessening or disappearance of the symptoms or signs of a disease. Full medical glossary
A type of autoimmune arthritis featuring chronic inflammation of the small joints, especially in the hands and feet, and eventually leading to joint destruction and deformity Full medical glossary
A tube placed inside a tubular structure in the body, to keep it patent, that is, open. Full medical glossary