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J Anat. 2003 Mar;202(Pt 3):279-91.

The three-dimensional architecture of the notochordal nucleus pulposus: novel observations on cell structures in the canine intervertebral disc.

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McCaig Centre for Joint Injury and Arthritis Research, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.


Cells from the nucleus pulposus of young (< 2 years) and old (> 5 years) non-chondrodystrophoid dogs were studied using routine histology, confocal laser scanning microscopy and transmission electron microscopy. The architecture of cell structures--from the tissue scale down to subcellular scale--was reported. Clusters of notochordal cells were observed in young nuclei pulposi, ranging from 10 to 426 cells each. These clusters resisted mechanical disruption and showed evidence of cell-cell signalling via gap junctions. Cells (30-40 microm in diameter) within the clusters had a physaliferous appearance, containing numerous large inclusions which ranged from 1 to 20 microm in diameter. The inclusions were surrounded by a dense actin cortex but were not contained by a lipid bilayer. The contents of the inclusions were determined not to be predominantly carbohydrate or neutral lipid as assessed by histochemical staining, but the exact composition of the contents remained uncertain. There were striking differences in the cell architecture of young vs. old nuclei pulposi, with a loss of both cell clusters and physaliferous cells during ageing. These observations demonstrate unique cell structures, which may influence our understanding of the differences between notochordal and chondrocytic cells in the nucleus pulposus. Such differences could have substantial impact upon how we think about development, degeneration and repair of the intervertebral disc.

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