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Arthritis Res. 2000;2(2):145-53. Epub 2000 Feb 9.

Active synovial matrix metalloproteinase-2 is associated with radiographic erosions in patients with early synovitis.

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  • 1Arthritis and Rheumatism Branch, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.



In cancer the gelatinases [matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-2 and MMP-9] have been shown to be associated with tissue invasion and metastatic disease. In patients with inflammatory arthritis the gelatinases are expressed in the synovial membrane, and have been implicated in synovial tissue invasion into adjacent cartilage and bone. It is hypothesized that an imbalance between the activators and inhibitors of the gelatinases results in higher levels of activity, enhanced local proteolysis, and bone erosion.


To determine whether the expression and activity levels of MMP-2 and MMP-9, and their regulators MMP-14 and tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase (TIMP), are associated with early erosion formation in patients with synovitis of recent onset.


A subset of 66 patients was selected from a larger early synovitis cohort on the basis of tissue availability for the study of synovial tissue and serum gelatinase expression. Patients with peripheral joint synovitis of less than 1 years' duration were evaluated clinically and serologically on four visits over a period of 12 months. At the initial visit, patients underwent a synovial tissue biopsy of one swollen joint, and patients had radiographic evaluation of hands and feet initially and at 1year. Serum MMP-1, MMP-2, MMP-9, MMP-14, and TIMP-1 and TIMP-2 levels were determined, and synovial tissue was examined by immunohistology for the expression of MMP-2 and MMP-9, and their molecular regulators. Gelatinolytic activity for MMP-2 and MMP-9 was quantified using a sensitive, tissue-based gel zymography technique. Four healthy individuals underwent closed synovial biopsy and their synovial tissues were similarly analyzed.


Of the 66 patients studied, 45 fulfilled American College of Rheumatology criteria for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), with 32 (71%) being rheumatoid factor positive. Of the 21 non-RA patients, seven had a spondylarthropathy and 14 had undifferentiated arthritis. Radiographically, 12 of the RA patients had erosions at multiple sites by 1 year, whereas none of the non-RA patients had developed erosive disease of this extent. In the tissue, latent MMP-2 was widely expressed in the synovial lining layer and in areas of stromal proliferation in the sublining layer and stroma, whereas MMP-9 was expressed more sparsely and focally. MMP-14, TIMP-2, and MMP-2 were all detected in similar areas of the lining layer on consecutive histologic sections. Tissue expression of MMP-14, the activator for pro-MMP-2, was significantly higher in RA than in non-RA patients (8.4 +/- 5 versus 3.7 +/- 4 cells/high-power field; P = 0.009). In contrast, the expression of TIMP-2, an inhibitor of MMP-2, was lower in the RA than in the non-RA samples (25 +/- 12 versus 39 +/- 9 cells/high-power field; P = 0.01). Synovial tissue expressions of MMP-2, MMP-14, and TIMP-2 were virtually undetectable in normal synovial tissue samples. The synovial tissue samples of patients with erosive disease had significantly higher levels of active MMP-2 than did those of patients without erosions (Fig. 1). Tissue expression of MMP-2 and MMP-9, however, did not correlate with the serum levels of these enzymes. With the exception of serum MMP-2, which was not elevated over normal, serum levels of all of the other MMPs and TIMPs were elevated to varying degrees, and were not predictive of erosive disease. Interestingly, MMP-1 and C-reactive protein, both of which were associated with the presence of erosions, were positively correlated with each other (r = 0.42; P < 0.001).


MMP-2 and MMP-9 are thought to play an important role in the evolution of joint erosions in patients with an inflammatory arthritis. Most studies have concentrated on the contribution of MMP-9 to the synovitis, because synovial fluid and serum MMP-9 levels are markedly increased in inflammatory arthropathies. Previously reported serum levels of MMP-9 have varied widely. In the present sample of patients with synovitis of recent onset, serum MMP-9 levels were elevated in only 21%. Moreover, these elevations were not specific for RA, the tissue expression of MMP-9 was focal, and the levels of MMP-9 activity were not well correlated with early erosions. Although serum MMP-2 levels were not of prognostic value, high synovial tissue levels of MMP-2 activity were significantly correlated with the presence of early erosions. This may reflect augmented activation of MMP-2 by the relatively high levels of MMP-14 and low levels of TIMP-2 seen in these tissues. We were able to localize the components of this trimolecular complex to the synovial lining layer in consecutive tissue sections, a finding that is consistent with their colocalization. In conclusion, we have provided evidence that active MMP-2 complexes are detectable in the inflamed RA synovium and may be involved in the development of early bony erosions. These results suggest that strategies to inhibit the activation of MMP-2 may have the potential for retarding or preventing early erosions in patients with inflammatory arthritis.

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