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Lab Invest. 2010 Jan;90(1):20-30. doi: 10.1038/labinvest.2009.111. Epub 2009 Oct 12.

Rho/ROCK and MEK/ERK activation by transforming growth factor-alpha induces articular cartilage degradation.

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CIHR Group in Skeletal Development and Remodeling, London, ON, Canada.


Identification and characterization of therapeutic targets for joint conditions, such as osteoarthritis (OA), is exceedingly important for addressing the increasing burden of disease. Transforming growth factor-alpha (TGFalpha) is upregulated by articular chondrocytes in experimentally induced and human OA. To test the potential involvement of TGFalpha, which is an activator of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) signaling, in joint degeneration and to identify signaling mechanisms mediating articular chondrocyte responses to TGFalpha, rat chondrocytes and osteochondral explants were treated with TGFalpha and various inhibitors of intracellular signaling pathways. Stimulation of EGFR signaling in articular chondrocytes by TGFalpha resulted in the activation of RhoA/ROCK (Rho kinase), MEK (MAPK/ERK kinase)/ERK (extracellular-signal-regulated kinase), PI3K (phosphoinositide 3-kinase) and p38 MAPK (mitogen-activated protein kinase) pathways. Modification of the chondrocyte actin cytoskeleton was stimulated by TGFalpha, but inhibition of only Rho or ROCK activation prevented morphological changes. TGFalpha suppressed expression of anabolic genes including Sox9, type II collagen and aggrecan, which were rescued only by inhibiting MEK/ERK activation. Furthermore, catabolic factor upregulation by TGFalpha was prevented by ROCK and p38 MAPK inhibition, including matrix metalloproteinase-13 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha, which are well known to contribute to cartilage digestion in OA. To assess the ability of TGFalpha to stimulate degradation of mature articular cartilage, type II collagen and aggrecan cleavage fragments were analyzed in rat osteochondral explants exposed to exogenous TGFalpha. Normal articular cartilage contained low levels of both cleavage fragments, but high levels were observed in the cartilage treated with TGFalpha. Selective inhibition of MEK/ERK and Rho/ROCK activation greatly reduced or completely prevented excess type II collagen and aggrecan degradation in response to TGFalpha. These data suggest that TGFalpha is a strong stimulator of cartilage degradation and that Rho/ROCK and MEK/ERK signaling have critical roles in mediating these effects.

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