Synthetic chondroitin sulfate

by Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR

Nathan Wei is a nationally known board-certified rheumatologist and author of the Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit. It's available exclusively at this website... not available in stores.

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From Chemical and Engineering News (

Chondroitin sulfates are known to play a role in cell division, neuronal development, and spinal cord injury.

The nature and mechanism of these effects have been controversial and difficult to study, however, because the structures of these carbohydrates vary widely and they have generally been available only as complex mixtures.

Now, the first study of the bioactivity of pure, synthetic chondroitin sulfates has helped to elucidate their neuronal effects and could point the way toward potential clinical applications of the agents.

Chondroitin sulfates are structurally diverse polysaccharides having a range of lengths and sulfation patterns. The complex mixtures of the compounds that are found in nature have deterred efforts to better understand their biological roles.

Assistant professor of chemistry Linda C. Hsieh-Wilson and coworkers at California Institute of Technology have synthesized two chondroitin sulfate oligomers and have found that a chondroitin sulfate tetrasaccharide stimulates neuronal growth and differentiation, whereas a disaccharide does not [J. Am. Chem. Soc., 126, 7736 (2004)]. This result suggests that a four-unit structure may be the smallest chondroitin sulfate capable of neuronal bioactivity.

“Although much evidence has accumulated at the polysaccharide level for the neurogenic [nerve-growth-inducing] activity of chondroitin sulfates, no evidence has been reported before about the minimum chain size and the minimum functional domain structure,” says professor Kazuyuki Sugahara of the biochemistry department at Kobe Pharmaceutical University, in Japan. “Biochemists like me have been trying to enzymatically dissect active polysaccharides to isolate fragments, without success. Hsieh-Wilson and coworkers now appear to have demonstrated neurogenic activity for small, chemically synthesized chondroitin sulfate oligosaccharides for the first time.”

Since its discovery in the 1960s, chondroitin has gained popularity as a treatment for osteoarthritis (OA), which usually results from the gradual wearing away of the cartilage that cushions the joints. Chondroitin is one of the components of cartilage. The natural form is made from cow and shark cartilage; supplement manufacturers can also make a synthetic form of this protein in laboratories.

The body uses chondroitin to make new bone, tendons, and cartilage. Cartilage is the tough, white, fibrous portion of the joint that normally allows pain-free movement. Chondroitin is believed to help draw fluid into the cartilage, making it spongy and flexible. It's also touted to help vital nutrients enter the cartilage, which help keep it healthy. In clinical trials, the usual dose was 1200mg daily, either in one dose, or divided and taken in two or three doses per day.

Medical research has shown that chondroitin can reduce osteoarthritis pain. A recent scientific study revealed that 40 percent of people noticed an improvement in their symptoms. But, when compared to the prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication diclofenac (brand name Voltaren), chondroitin didn't seem to work as well and took longer to reduce pain.

While chondroitin may reduce pain for some people with arthritis, it is important to remember that it may not work for everyone. Future research is important for understanding the role of chondroitin in the treatment of arthritis.

More information and a review of the topic: Carbohydr Res. 2012 Jul 15;356:75-85. doi: 10.1016/j.carres.2012.02.010. Epub 2012 Feb 21. Synthetic and semi-synthetic chondroitin sulfate oligosaccharides, polysaccharides, and glycomimetics. Bedini E, Parrilli M.

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