A cheap drug that costs less than $1.50 a day slows the progression of osteoarthritis, reduces knee pain and could save thousands of people from having costly hip and knee replacement surgery, according to British researchers.
“This is a major breakthrough,” said Professor Cyrus Cooper, the lead researcher at Oxford and Southampton universities. “Osteoarthritis is a painful and debilitating condition, and for over 20 years we have been searching for a treatment that would allow us to alter the course of the disease, rather than just manage the symptoms.”
The study, presented at the European Congress on Osteoporosis and Osteoarthritis in Bordeaux, France, showed that strontium ranelate slowed the deterioration of knee-joint cartilage in osteoarthritis patients by about a third. It also significantly reduced pain and improved day-to-day mobility. Until now, pain management and surgery have been the only available treatments for osteoarthritis.
“The results today could totally change the way we treat osteoarthritis. For the first time we have a treatment that can slow the development of this debilitating disease and could reduce or even eliminate the need for expensive and painful joint replacement surgery,” said Cooper.
Strontium ranelate, which is sold under the brand name Protelos in the UK, is a powder that is mixed with water to make a lemon-flavored drink. It is used to prevent fractures in post-menopausal women with the brittle bone disease osteoporosis.
Although strontium ranelate is registered as a prescription drug in more than 70 countries, it has not been approved in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration. Nearly 27 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis, a painful and disabling condition caused by a loss of cartilage and the degradation of joints.
The phase III study involved nearly 1700 mostly female osteoarthritis patients with an average age of 63. They were treated with daily doses of Protelos or a placebo. For every three years of treatment, Protelos slowed the progression of osteoarthritis in knee cartilage by one third. Progression of the disease was cut in half for “rapid progressors” who are at high risk of needing joint replacement surgery.
How strontium ranelate works is not clear, but it may influence stem cells that generate bone and cartilage. The drug’s ability to slow cartilage loss was unexpected because osteoarthritis and osteoporosis are completely different diseases.