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Cell Biochem Funct. 2003 Sep;21(3):235-40.

Identifying and characterizing the joint cavity-forming cell.

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Department of Veterinary Basic Sciences, Royal Veterinary College, London, UK.


For many years, a large body of circumstantial evidence supported the notion that the synovial membrane produced the hyaluronan-rich synovial fluid. A quantitative cytochemical technique for uridine-diphospho glucose dehydrogenase (UDPGD) activity established that fibroblast-like cells on the intimal surface of the synovial lining made a specific contribution to maintaining these glycosaminoglycan levels. Our studies have aimed to determine the mechanisms that control the attainment and persistence of this differentiated phenotype, and have recently focused on their appearance during joint cavity development in the embryonic limb; a process that is dependent upon skeletal movement. These in situ micro-biochemical studies have shown that cells bordering the presumptive joint cavity exhibit raised UDPGD activity, are associated with a matrix rich in hyaluronan and show immobilization-induced loss in such characteristics. Together with complimentary studies in adult joints, this suggests that mechanical stimuli promote the acquisition of this joint line-forming phenotype. For this reason our studies have attempted to identify the 'up-stream' mechano-dependent factors that control these events. Endothelial cells respond to mechanical stimuli by activating, via phosphorylation, mitogen activated protein kinase/extracellular signal-regulated kinase (MAPkinase/ERK). Using phospho-specific anti-ERK-1/2 antibodies we have shown that immunolabelling of developing limbs shows a clear joint line-selective activation during cavitation, with little if any labelling within neighbouring elements, and that this is abolished in immobilized limbs. In an attempt to facilitate the final mechanistic deciphering of these responses we have used an in vitro-based approach and found by Western blotting that active ERK-1/2 expression was increased in cultured articular surface cells following application of dynamic mechanical strain. Intriguingly, the use of a selective inhibitor (PD98059) of ERK activation by its classical activating kinase, Mek, to restrict such strain-induced increases, produced an enhanced strain-related increase in UDPGD mRNA expression. This suggests that mechano-dependent ERK activation serves a feedback regulatory role during differentiation of these cells. Whilst it is clear that these in vitro experiments serve a useful function, it is clear that they generally take little regard of the influence that might be provided by cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions within the developing limb's complex and dynamic environment and architecture. It is therefore imperative that we attempt to bridge the gap between the cell biology of such phenomena on the one hand, and the morphological approach to this same problem on the other.

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