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Arthritis Rheum. 2001 Jun;44(6):1304-12.

Apoptotic cell death is not a widespread phenomenon in normal aging and osteoarthritis human articular knee cartilage: a study of proliferation, programmed cell death (apoptosis), and viability of chondrocytes in normal and osteoarthritic human knee cartilage.

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Department of Pathology, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Erlangen, Germany.



Chondrocytes are crucial for adequate matrix balance and function. Cell proliferation and, recently, extensive apoptotic cell death have been reported in osteoarthritic (OA) cartilage. Apoptotic cell death would be an obvious central factor in the initiation and progression of OA, since there is no potential for replacing articular chondrocytes in the adult. Therefore, we studied the occurrence of apoptotic cell disintegration and cell proliferation in OA and normal articular cartilage obtained from the knees of adult donors of all ages.


Following immunostaining for cellular proteins as well as staining for nuclear DNA, we performed triple-channel confocal laser scanning microscopy on thick cartilage slices to evaluate lacunar emptying and cell viability. Cell proliferation and apoptotic cell death were evaluated morphologically, by immunodetection of the proliferation-associated Ki-67 antigen, and by the TUNEL reaction.


With the exception of the calcified layer, we were not able to detect any major (apoptotic or nonapoptotic) cell disintegration in normal young or aged articular knee cartilage. Single apoptotic cells were detected in OA articular knee cartilage. A significant increase in lacunar emptying was observed in late-stage specimens with higher Mankin scores compared with age-matched normal control cartilage specimens, but not in low-grade lesions. A significant (but lesser) increase in empty lacunae was also observed with age in normal cartilage. Cell proliferation was rarely detected in OA cartilage samples and was not detected at all in normal cartilage samples.


Our results confirm the findings of previous studies showing that cell proliferation occurs in OA cartilage. They also show that, contrary to previous suggestions, apoptotic cell death is not a widespread phenomenon in aging or OA cartilage.

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