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By Jeff Green

A Memorial researcher is expanding his studies towards a better understanding of osteoarthritis, thanks to significant federal funding.

Dr. Guangju Zhai, professor, Division of Biomedical Sciences (Genetics), Faculty of Medicine, has been awarded $971,550 in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to study the causes of osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis that is expected to leave 40 million severely disabled by 2050.

There is no cure for osteoarthritis.

Dr. Zhai and his team want to develop personalized medicine tools to help patients manage osteoarthritis.

“Our project will be the first of its kind and allow us to systematically examine the molecular alterations in osteoarthritis,” Dr. Zhai said during an interview with the Gazette.

Groundbreaking research

The recipient of Memorial’s President’s Award for Outstanding Research in 2017, Dr. Zhai is an international expert in genetic epidemiology.

His research focuses on identifying novel genetic and metabolic markers for predicting disease risk and progression, as well as discovering targets for the development of new treatments and medications for osteoarthritis.

“The new funding will certainly advance our research one step closer to achieve our goal.” — Dr. Guangju Zhai

Dr. Zhai established the Newfoundland Osteoarthritis Study, which aims to create a biobank of human joint tissues.

This unique, Memorial-led initiative produced a world-class resource that has supported multiple osteoarthritis-related projects with more than 30 publications in major medical peer-reviewed journals.

This work has attracted international collaborators from Australia, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S.

Making a difference

Dr. Zhai says he is motivated to work on complex diseases such as osteoarthritis because they have significant impact at both individual and population levels.

“I have been focusing on osteoarthritis research over the last 20 years and have made significant contribution to the understanding of the pathogenesis of osteoarthritis and identified several clinical actionable biomarkers for osteoarthritis,” he said.

“More recently, we found that a subset of osteoarthritis patients had significant lower arginine levels, which might be a good target for developing a new nutraceutics for osteoarthritis treatment. We are currently running a clinical trial on arginine supplement in osteoarthritis.”

‘Advancing our research’

Dr. Zhai says CIHR’s investment will allow him and his team to expand their research.

He says the funding will support metabolomics – the study of small chemical compounds present in body fluids – and genomics – the study of all genes – on more than 2,500 samples collected in Newfoundland and Labrador and on the other side of the globe.

Samples will be collected from patients participating in the Newfoundland Osteoarthritis Study; the Longitudinal Evaluation in the Arthritis Program, Osteoarthritis Study in Toronto; and the Tasmania Older Adult Cohort, Australia.

“The new funding will certainly advance our research one step closer to achieve our goal that is to identify biomarkers and molecular subtypes of osteoarthritis to realize the personalized medicine of osteoarthritis,” Dr. Zhai added.

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