CU, CSU awarded $39 million to develop new arthritis treatments

Mar. 26—A team of researchers from three Colorado universities — including the University of Colorado Boulder — will receive up to $39 million to develop new treatments for osteoarthritis.

The federal funding, announced Tuesday, will enable a team of researchers from CU Boulder, the University of Colorado Anschutz and Colorado State University to begin developing new treatments to end osteoarthritis, which affects more than 32.5 million people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"Within five years, our goal is to develop a suite of non-invasive therapies that can end osteoarthritis," project leader and CU Boulder Professor Stephanie Bryant said in a release. "It could be an absolute game-changer for patients."

The federal funding comes from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, a federal agency established by the Biden Administration in 2022 to support solutions to society's most challenging health problems.

The team hopes to commercialize a healing shot, an injury-patching hydrogel and an annual infusion. The only options for treatment that exist now are surgery or pain management.

"To truly address osteoarthritis, you have to get at both the biology and the structural problem," Michael Zuscik, professor and research vice chair in the Orthopedics Department at CU Anschutz, said in the release. "This unique Colorado dream team we have put together has the multidisciplinary expertise, and now the resources, to tackle both at once. We can approach curing the disease like never before."

Zuscik spent 15 years developing and testing a drug that could prompt the cartilage and bone cells to produce proteins needed to rebuild. If used, it must be injected every day. Bryant worked for 26 years to develop three-dimensional gel-like biomaterials that can slip into the cracks of torn cartilage or worn bone, providing supportive scaffolding for the body's cells to migrate.

Meanwhile, scientists at CSU have been working to perfect gene therapy techniques aimed at controlling inflammation and hastening cartilage healing.

The team now faces an engineering challenge to devise methods to deliver these technologies to the body at the same time and in a way that provides lasting benefits.

Co-Principal Investigator Laurie Goodrich, a veterinary clinician scientist and director of the Orthopedic Research Center at CSU, will begin clinical trials in animals when the treatments are ready.

"CSU's expertise in veterinary medicine will play a crucial role in helping to move this science to the next step," Goodrich said. "It's humbling to be a part of it."

Within three-and-a-half years, the team aims to start trials in humans.

"This is one of the most debilitating diseases there is and leads to people not being able to work or do the things they love," Bryant said. "The resulting lack of exercise increases the risk of other problems like heart disease. For us to have a chance to improve people's lives, it's the opportunity of a lifetime."