A joint effort between UNC-Chapel Hill's medical school and thousands of Johnston County residents has produced a one-of-a-kind data mine that is benefiting patients, scientists and doctors all over the world.
For the past two decades, the Johnston County Osteo arthritis Project has studied randomly selected Johnston County residents over 45 who agreed to extensive interviews and head-to-toe X-rays, physical exams and bone density scans. Scientists have documented the progress of thousands of the Johnston residents as some developed osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease.
The huge database arising out of the project, as well as thousands of blood and tissue samples kept in subzero freezers in Chapel Hill, has provided fodder for more than 100 peer-reviewed studies. It has led to significant discoveries about the ways in which heredity, lifestyle, occupation and ethnic backgrounds intertwine. For instance:
The association between fatigue and arthritis is so strong that some people can be treated simply with more sleep at night.
"Sometimes the best thing we do for people is getting them sleep," said UNC's Dr. Joanne Jordan, director of the project. "They didn't need another big drug, or knee injection; they might not have just been sleeping enough."
People with high levels of exposure to lead, experienced by anyone who was alive before the introduction of unleaded gas in 1972, are more likely to develop osteoarthritis.
Routine environmental exposure to a broad variety of products such as mercury and other metals - all more common in low-income groups - could predispose people to autoimmune disease such as arthritis.
People who have legs of different length are more likely to develop osteoarthritis of the hip and knee.
Results of the project have included the identification of biomarkers - substances present in blood or urine - that can diagnose or predict the development of osteoarthritis.
Researchers also have looked at the ways that people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds deal with the pain and depression that accompanies the disease.
And most recently, data have been used to study the presence of genes that indicate a predisposition to arthritis. The various markers are being studied for potential use in treating and even preventing the development of osteoarthritis.
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