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J Orthop Surg Res. 2008 Jul 17;3:29. doi: 10.1186/1749-799X-3-29.

Study of the collagen structure in the superficial zone and physiological state of articular cartilage using a 3D confocal imaging technique.

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3D Imaging Laboratory, the School of Mechanical Engineering, The University of Western Australia, Perth, WA, Australia.



The collagen structure in the superficial zone of articular cartilage is critical to the tissue's durability. Early osteoarthritis is often characterized with fissures on the articular surface. This is closely related to the disruption of the collagen network. However, the traditional histology can not offer visualization of the collagen structure in articular cartilage because it uses conventional optical microscopy that does not have insufficient imaging resolution to resolve collagen from proteoglycans in hyaline articular cartilage. This study examines the 3D collagen network of articular cartilage scored from 0 to 2 in the scoring system of International Cartilage Repair Society, and aims to develop a 3D histology for assessing early osteoarthritis.


Articular cartilage was visually classified into five physiological groups: normal cartilage, aged cartilage, cartilage with artificial and natural surface disruption, and fibrillated. The 3D collagen matrix of the cartilage was acquired using a 3D imaging technique developed previously. Traditional histology was followed to grade the physiological status of the cartilage in the scoring system of International Cartilage Repair Society.


Normal articular cartilage contains interwoven collagen bundles near the articular surface, approximately within the lamina splendens. However, its collagen fibres in the superficial zone orient predominantly in a direction spatially oblique to the articular surface. With age and disruption of the articular surface, the interwoven collagen bundles are gradually disappeared, and obliquely oriented collagen fibres change to align predominantly in a direction spatially perpendicular to the articular surface. Disruption of the articular surface is well related to the disappearance of the interwoven collagen bundles.


A 3D histology has been developed to supplement the traditional histology and study the subtle changes in the collagen network in the superficial zone during early physiological alteration of articular cartilage. The fibre confocal imaging technology used in this study has allowed developing confocal arthroscopy for in vivo studying the chondrocytes in different depth of articular cartilage. Therefore, the current study has potential to develop an in vivo 3D histology for diagnosis of early osteoarthritis.

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