Diabetes pill could cut need for knee replacements

A cheap medication used to treat diabetes could be redeployed in the battle against aching knees, it has been discovered. Millions of people already take Metformin to control their blood sugar levels in the face of type 2 diabetes, but scientists from Taiwan, China, Australia and Egypt have all found it could treat osteoarthritis.

Costing three pence a pill, Metformin has been widely prescribed since the 1950s, but it’s only now that a series of trials have seen how it could reduce the need for knee replacements. It’s believed the drug stimulates an enzyme to be released that prevents the wear and tear of cartilage, reducing inflammation and cutting down on pain.

Osteoarthritis is a common condition, especially amongst the elderly, and is suffered by some nine million people in the UK alone. When the cartilage in a joint has broken down it leaves no protective layer between bones, meaning they rub together painfully and prevent the individual being able to move as they used to.

Current treatments include anti-inflammatory painkillers, but long-term use can cause side effects including damage to the stomach. Steroid injections can be effective, but come with the risk of a cortisone flare, when the fluid crystallises in the joint and exacerbates inflammation further.

For many people - some 100,000 individuals in the UK annually - osteoarthritis leads to them having knee replacement surgery. As well as leaving a scar, the procedure can take up to 12 months of recovery. As some patients require both knee joints to be replaced, it can lead to loss of independence for a large amount of time.

This has led scientists to investigate whether other, existing medications could help to solve the problem. This approach can mean treatments can be approved more quickly if they’re already being used to address other health concerns and have been deemed safe by the regulators.

In one study, experts from China, Taiwan and Australia analysed data from 40,694 type 2 diabetes sufferers. They demonstrated that Metformin was strongly associated with a reduced risk of total knee replacements and total hip replacements. A recent clinical trial at Sadat City University in Egypt has made similar conclusions.

Photo credit: Pixabay/Sabine van Erp