Findings might help scientists develop novel and individualized patient therapies.

Richard Loeser, MD, and Veronica Ulici, PhD, conduct innovative research at the Thurston Arthritis Research Center

“I’d like a cheeseburger, large fries, soft drink, and an increased chance of developing osteoarthritis, please.” The next time you’re ordering lunch at your local fast food drive-through you might want to keep in mind that scientists are finding the old adage, “you are what you eat,” truer than we ever imagined.

New research findings illustrate the negative impact Western diets can have upon the naturally occurring microorganisms, including bacteria, living in the “gut,” (known as the microbiota). Foods that are high in sugar and fat, commonly found in Western diets, can lead to alterations in the microbiota. These alterations then lead to systemic inflammation as well as other changes that can increase the likelihood for the development and progression of a number of diseases.

UNC researchers are now conducting the first study that evaluates the potential for this process to lead to the development of osteoarthritis associated with obesity in people. The findings may help scientists develop novel and individualized dietary interventions that alter the composition of gut microbiota in order to reduce pain, improve function, and slow or stop the progression of osteoarthritis – the most common type of arthritis, and a significant cause of pain and disability. Due to its strong connection with aging and obesity, the prevalence of osteoarthritis in the U.S. is expected to double by the year 2030.

Richard Loeser, MD, Director of Basic and Translational Research at the Thurston Arthritis Research Center (TARC), and his co-investigators at the UNC School of Medicine, recently received a three-year grant from the Arthritis Foundation to conduct this innovative study. Biological samples for the study will be provided by the ongoing Johnston County Osteoarthritis Project, which is directed by Joanne M. Jordan, MD, MPH and managed by TARC. This study offers a large prospective population-based study of patients in NC that will serve as an extensive clinical database.

“A number of recent studies show that the specific composition of the 100 trillion microbes within the intestine plays a central role in influencing how the food we eat affects the function of the immune system, allergic and inflammatory responses, and aging,” says Loeser. “Despite these important functions, no one has studied the role of the microbiota in human osteoarthritis. We are very grateful to the Arthritis Foundation for helping to make this important research possible.”

Due to the rapid recent advances being made in dietary and microbial interventions to alter the intestinal microbiota, it is hoped that the findings from this research can be translated into safe and effective interventions for overweight and obese adults with osteoarthritis, and perhaps others who develop the disease as well.