Growing up can be challenging; aging can be another feat all on its own. New science is pioneering the way to assist with growing old and its impact on our bones and joints. Our twilight years can now start looking distinctly more silver lined!

Joint Effort

Aging is a very real part of life. It is a beautiful concept that—even though daunting—forces us to appreciate where we are now and the experiences we have lived through that inevitably pave our future path. Sometimes though, it is not so fun. With aging comes a natural wear and tear, new aches and pains, and experiences that we have to adapt to in our daily lives. One such “wear” that takes its toll is arthritis, an often painful swelling and tenderness around our joints that cause stiffness and in severe cases, chronic pain. The most common form, osteoarthritis—affecting millions of people worldwide—occurs when the protective cartilage around the joints that provides the cushion between bones wears down over time. Osteoarthritis typically manifests in hands, knees, hips, and in the spine in older people; however, it is not biased! It is seen in young people too and in joints all over the body.

As we age—or alternatively, we get injured as we carry out our daily existence—we have no way to grow new cartilage to help with this natural wearing. This is where new science comes into play. For any marine buff, one of the coolest things you learn as a kid is that sharks have no bones, rather their structural integrity is entirely composed of cartilage that—and this is the kicker—never stops growing. This awesome evolutionary feat is not limited to just sharks, but also extends to members of the skates and rays families. Collectively known as chondrichthyes, these cartilaginous fishes are distinct from all other toothy, jawed vertebrates of the deep.

Unlike other mammals, as well as humans, sharks, skates, and rays have large livers filled with low-density oils together with an entirely cartilage skeleton that makes them light and buoyant. New research has found that adult skates of certain species go one step further when developing fully cartilage skeletons: they are capable of spontaneously repairing injured cartilage with entirely new growth! This group of skates are known as “little skates” (Leucoraja erinacea) and scientists are hoping that this discovery may open opportunities for adaptive therapies for arthritis.

Skatin’ On Up

So why all the hype? Well, cartilage is the most resilient of the elastic tissues surrounding our bones and supporting the joints between them. It also forms the main structural component of our ears and nose. To date, this is the first known example of adult cartilage repair occurring in a research organism. The research team from the University of Cambridge and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts additionally found that newly-healed skate cartilage did not form scar tissue. This unique and incredible adaptive ability that the little skates possess is thought to be possible because of a specialized component in their makeup, a progenitor cell. The researchers succeeded in tracing, isolating, and labeling this cell with the aim to unpack its genetic code. A more detailed insight into the findings of this study is available here.

Although adaptive treatment based on this rare find is still in its early stages, many scientists and hopefuls believe that this revelation could be a first step towards potentially curing arthritis as well as many other cartilage-related diseases. This glass half-full insight is largely relying on the fact that the genetic information encased in little skates and humans use much of the same genes to create cartilage. The thought goes that if skates are capable of making cartilage in their adult form, then why can’t we do it too?

We are still some years away from this being an active therapy mainstreamed for arthritis treatment, but it really is one of those things that is exciting to look ahead for. It is important to note that the researchers—in addition to being pioneers in medical science—are also marine ambassadors at their core. They state at the forefront of their papers that this finding does not warrant the hunt and harvest of little skates. Further, they outline that, even today, there are numerous items being sold on the black market in areas around Asia that claim to hold the key to curing joint pain. Most of these are labeled as shark or other cartilaginous treatments, with no scientific, medical, or holistic grounding for their effectiveness; they do not work and no one should be tempted to believe otherwise.

The Future is Marine

The discovery that the ocean is a well of natural remedies is not a new one. For decades, researchers and scientists have been gathering data and replicating genes in laboratories to create even a fraction of what the ocean houses, in an attempt to treat a range of ailments being experienced on land. From sedentary corals to ethereal jellies and now some of the largest predatory fish and skates of the deep, a long list of substances has been trialed to replicate their natural capabilities for the treatment of an even longer list of human diseases.

What this finding does is remind us that our oceans are extremely unique and require our protection to make sure they stick around for a longer time than is currently foreseen. The rate at which we are depleting marine resources is sickening. If we would like to continue walking and exploring this world, we need to be treating our natural resources with a bit more respect. Just because we do not know and understand yet everything that lives beneath the surface, does not give us a right to decimate it. 

This small yet hugely significant finding should be a beacon for us as a people to realize that we can still benefit greatly from ocean wildlife without just taking everything we can reach right now. Research like this really paints a smile across conservationists worldwide, who rely on the smallest wins to gradually carry us forward. The more people that learn about these efforts the better understood the concept of conservation and protection of a natural resource becomes. Each small win has the potential to be the turning point for habitats on the edge of destruction.