A quick biopsy of joint tissue could be all that's needed to identify early stage arthritis, thanks to a new study of markers in the joint fluid associated with the disease.

"With this biomarker test, we can study the levels of specific proteins that we now know are associated with osteoarthritis," study researcher James Cook, of the University of Missouri, said in a statement. "Not only does the test have the potential to help predict future arthritis, but it also tells us about the early mechanisms of arthritis, which will lead to better treatments in the future."

The development of the test in arthritic dogs was published in December 2011 issue of the Journal of Knee Surgery, and the test is currently being adapted to humans, a news report by the University of Missouri said today, May 15.

More than 27 million adults currently suffer from osteoarthritis, which is the most common form of arthritis. In the past, doctors have been unable to diagnose patients with arthritis until they begin to show symptoms, which include joint pain and stiffness.

By the time these symptoms are present, it is often too late for preventive and minimally invasive treatment options. Catching arthritis early means a better treatment course, the researchers said.

The test they have developed uses specific biomarkers (for example, proteins or strands of genetic material in the joint fluid) to accurately determine if a patient is developing arthritis as well as predict the potential severity of the disease.

"Being able to tell patients when they are at a high risk for developing arthritis will give doctors a strong motivational tool to convince patients to take preventive measures including appropriate exercise and diet change," Cook said.

The test can be run off of a single drop of fluid from a patient’s joint, which is obtained with a small needle similar to drawing blood.

The researchers developed the test by analyzing the joints of arthritic dogs, which operate similarly to the joints of humans. (About 20 percent of middle-aged dogs and 90 percent of older dogs have osteoarthritis in one or more joints.)

The test is being adapted to human patients, and the biomarker test is currently available for licensing and is in the process of gaining FDA approval.

"This test has already shown early usefulness for allowing us to monitor how different treatments affect the arthritic joints in people," Cook said. "With further validation, this test will allow doctors to adjust and fine tune treatments to individual patients."