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J Orthop Res. 2001 Jul;19(4):703-11.

Chondrocyte necrosis and apoptosis in impact damaged articular cartilage.

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  • 1James A. Baker Institute for Animal Health, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


A decrease in chondrocyte numbers is one characteristic of osteoarthritic cartilage. This decrease may be the result of apoptosis or other forms of cell death induced by mechanical damage. Furthermore, cell death may contribute to the structural and metabolic changes found in osteoarthritic cartilage. Therefore, we investigated cell viability and the mode of cell death in cartilage subjected to an increasing severity of impact loads expected to cause compositional damage and osteoarthritic-like metabolic alterations. Canine cartilage explants were subjected to cyclic indentation impacts of 5 megapascals at 0.3 Hz for 0, 2, 20, and 120 min and then kept in culture for 2, 4, 48, and 144 h. Cell death was assessed by the TUNEL assay and by uptake of propidium iodide. Viable cells were detected by the ability to metabolize fluorescein diacetate. Nuclear morphology and ultrastructure of the cell were examined using Hoechst 33342 fluorescent staining and transmission electron microscopy (TEM). As controls for necrosis and apoptosis, cartilage was, respectively, frozen and thawed or incubated with mitomycin-C, an apoptosis inducer. In cartilage that had been loaded for 2 h, 32% of the chondrocytes in the loaded core took up propidium iodide within 2 h after loading. Most of these were in the middle to superficial zones and reflected leaky cell membranes usually characteristic of necrosis. Less than 1% of these chondrocytes were positive in the TUNEL assay after 4 h. After additional culture for 2 days, however, the proportion of chondrocytes which were positive in the TUNEL assay reached 73%. A dose dependent response to duration of loading was detected with the TUNEL assay at this time. The TUNEL assay was not specific for apoptosis since 92% of chondrocytes in freeze/thawed cartilage were TUNEL positive. However, some cells with apoptotic bodies and chromatin condensation characteristic of apoptosis were found in the transition zone between necrotic and normal chondrocytes, but not in the superficial and upper zones, in impact damaged cartilage. We concluded that in this study, necrosis occurred first, followed by apoptosis.

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