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Int J Mol Med. 2015 Nov;36(5):1291-9. doi: 10.3892/ijmm.2015.2359. Epub 2015 Sep 30.

Crocin exerts anti-inflammatory and anti-catabolic effects on rat intervertebral discs by suppressing the activation of JNK.

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Shanghai Key Laboratory of Orthopaedic Implants, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Shanghai Ninth People's Hospital, Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, Shanghai 200011, P.R. China.


As intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration has been proven to contribute to low back pain (LBP), drug treatment aiming at attenuating IVD degeneration may prove to be benefiical. Crocin, a bioactive component of saffron, has been found to exert anti-inflammatory effects on cartilage. In the present study, the anti-inflammatory and anti-catabolic effects of crocin on rat IVDs were analyzed in vitro and ex vivo. Nucleus pulposus (NP) cells were isolated from the lumbar IVDs of Sprague-Dawley rats. The NP cells were first treated with various concentrations of crocin, and then stimulated with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) to induce inflammation. Subsequently, RT-qPCR and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay were carried out to measure the expression levels of catabolic enzymes, pro-inflammatory factors and the components of the extracellular matrix (ECM). In addition, western blot analysis was also used to investigate the related signaling pathways. The whole spinal motion segment (vertebra-IVD-vertebra section) of the rats was isolated and cultured in the presence or absence of LPS and crocin for 7 days. The ex vivo effects of crocin on the ECM of the IVD structures were determined by histological and biochemical analysis. In vitro, crocin significantly inhibited the LPS-induced overexpression of catabolic enzymes [matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-1, MMP-3, MMP-13, a disintegrin-like and metalloprotease (reprolysin type) with thrombospondin type 1 motif (ADAMTS)-4 and ADAMTS‑5], pro-inflammatory factors [interleukin (IL)-1β, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α, IL-6 and inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS)] and Toll-like receptor (TLR)‑2 in a concentration-dependent manner. Notably, crocin partly prevented the downregulation of aggrecan and type II collagen (collagen‑II). Moreover, crocin suppressed the LPS-induced activation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway by inhibiting the phosphorylation of c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK). Ex vivo experiments demonstrated that crocin protected the rat IVDs from the LPS-induced depletion of the ECM components, including proteoglycan and collagen-II. In conclusion, crocin effectively suppressed the degeneration-related inflammation and catabolism in rat IVDs in vitro and ex vivo, suggesting that crocin has potential for use as a therapuetic strategy in the treatment of LBP.

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