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Arthritis Rheum. 2003 May;48(5):1261-70.

The pathobiology of focal lesion development in aging human articular cartilage and molecular matrix changes characteristic of osteoarthritis.

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Shriners Hospitals for Children, and McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.



To determine if early focal lesions seen in aging exhibit molecular changes in the extracellular matrix that are similar to those seen in osteoarthritis (OA) and to examine the interrelationships between matrix degradation and synthesis and how they relate to cartilage turnover.


Condylar cartilage was obtained postmortem from lesion-free joints and from the lesion (where present as well as) from areas adjacent to and remote from the lesion of 31 knees without signs of joint injury (damage to ligaments or menisci). Cartilage was graded histologically and assayed for type II collagen and proteoglycan aggrecan glycosaminoglycan (GAG) contents and turnover (specifically, type II collagen denaturation and its cleavage by collagenase), type II collagen synthesis (C-propeptide [CPII] content), and aggrecan turnover (846 epitope content). To study the degradation of aggrecan reflected by the release of GAG, we cultured cartilage samples from 10 knees.


The more degenerated cartilage from the lesion and adjacent area exhibited significantly more collagen cleavage by collagenase than did cartilage remote from the lesion. Type II collagen denaturation and synthesis were also significantly elevated in the lesion and adjacent cartilage, but neither cleavage nor denaturation correlated with synthesis. Type II collagen content decreased with increasing degeneration, with the lowest levels present in the lesion. Collagen content was indirectly related to denaturation and cleavage adjacent to and remote from the lesion and to denaturation within the lesion. Collagen cleavage and denaturation adjacent to and remote from the lesion were directly interrelated. Cartilage from the lesion contained significantly less GAG than did cartilage adjacent to and remote from the lesion. Aggrecan turnover (846 epitope) was also elevated in both the lesion and adjacent cartilage, whereas GAG release was elevated only in the lesion. GAG and 846 epitope contents were interrelated only at sites remote from the lesion. There was also a direct correlation between collagen and GAG contents in the lesion and in adjacent sites. This correlation was also seen between collagen synthesis (CPII) and the 846 epitope.


These results demonstrate that lesions seen in aging exhibit molecular changes in matrix turnover similar to those seen in OA articular cartilage at arthroplasty, but not in healthy normal aging cartilage. The direct relationships between type II collagen cleavage and denaturation and the inverse relationship between type II collagen content and cleavage or denaturation implicate collagenase activity and damage to collagen in this loss of collagen during lesion development. The lack of correlation of the increased synthesis with the degradation or content of type II collagen indicates that these aspects of turnover are not coordinated in the pathologic state. However, the direct relationship between collagen and GAG contents in and adjacent to the lesion illustrates the structural interrelationships of collagen and proteoglycan aggrecan molecules. These results suggest that these focal lesions represent the development of early OA and that this involves the progressive damage to articular cartilage surrounding the lesion as part of the process of the development of idiopathic OA.

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