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There's the rub. Osteoarthritis is one of the most frequent causes of physical disability among adults, affecting more than 20 million people in the United States alone. In this disease the cartilage that protects the ends of bones where they meet in the joints slowly disintegrates. The exposed bones rub together, causing pain, swelling, and loss of motion of the joint.

For some time physicians believed that osteoarthritis was simply a matter of wear and tear on the joints, a condition that developed with aging. Increasingly, however, researchers have suspected a genetic component to this disease. Research by David Felson, a professor of medicine at the School of Medicine, and colleagues in the Framingham Heart Study recently identified eight areas on the human genome that seem to be associated with increased risk of inheriting osteoarthritis. The Framingham Heart Study is a landmark 54-year-old epidemiological study funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and operated by Boston University.

The researchers examined the DNA of 793 patients in the original cohort of the Framingham study, and 684 of their now middle-aged children. The average age of the parents was 62; that of their children 54. Half of the original participants and 30 percent of their offspring had at least one hand joint affected by osteoarthritis.

Felson’s DNA studies suggest sites on several chromosomes that may be linked to increased risk of osteoarthritis in the hand. The researchers point out, however, that osteoarthritis is an extremely complex disease and their findings suggest that genetic linkages may be specific to the appearance of disease or to the joints affected -- that is, specific genetic variations may be associated with greater risk of disease in one specific joint or may predispose a person to a specific variant of the disease.

By identifying the genes involved, it is hoped that the cellular mechanisms leading to osteoarthritis can be better understood, and that new therapies and approaches to treating and preventing the disease may be developed.

This research was reported in the April 2002 issue of the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism.

Family values. There continue to be striking disparities in how economic wealth is distributed in the United States. Statistics reveal that CEOs earn 419 times as much as the workers at their corporations, and the richest one percent of the population possess more wealth than the bottom 95 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 31 million Americans live below the poverty line -- ,269 for a single parent and two children -- an amount considerably below today’s actual cost of living.

How families and individuals are affected by poverty and how they make sense of poverty, wealth, and economic inequality are the focus of Deborah Belle’s work.

A CAS associate professor of psychology and director of the Human Development Program, Belle has been investigating how parents speak with their elementary school–aged children about these issues. She and her colleagues, including BU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program student Melissa Moran (CAS’03), initially recruited 17 families from diverse economic, ethnic/racial, and religious backgrounds and asked them to record family conversations prompted by materials provided by the researchers. These included a photograph of a homeless man, statements about poverty and economic inequality, a question, and a political cartoon.

The researchers coded the discussions for mentions of fairness of economic inequality, reasons attributed for economic inequality, and obligation to help those who are poor and/or homeless.

Preliminary analysis of the discussions reveals that parents are more likely than children to view poverty as fair or deserved; parents also are more likely than children to attribute poverty to internal factors (such as mental illness or laziness); and children are more likely to want to provide personal help to poor or homeless people, while their parents are more apt to consider it the government’s responsibility.

The researchers will be recruiting additional families for this study, and will further analyze the data, comparing, for example, differences in the ways that parents speak to older and younger children and to sons and daughters, how children’s ideas change with age, and variations among racial, ethnic, and religious groups and people with varying political affiliations.

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations