Objective: To test the hypothesis that terminal differentiation of chondrocytes in human osteoarthritic cartilage might lead to the failure of repair mechanisms and might cause progressive loss of structure and function of articular cartilage.
Design: Markers for terminally differentiated chondrocytes, such as alkaline phosphatase, annexin II, annexin V and type X collagen, were detected by immunohistochemical analysis of human normal and osteoarthritic knee cartilage from medial and lateral femoral condyles. Apoptosis in these specimens was detected using the TUNEL labeling. Mineralization and matrix vesicles were detected by alizarin red S staining and electron microscopic analysis.
Results: Alkaline phosphatase, annexin II, annexin V and type X collagen were expressed by chondrocytes in the upper zone of early stage and late stage human osteoarthritic cartilage. However, these proteins, which are typically expressed in hypertrophic and calcifying growth plate cartilage, were not detectable in the upper, middle and deep zones of healthy human articular cartilage. TUNEL labeling of normal and osteoarthritic human cartilage sections provided evidence that chondrocytes in the upper zone of late stage osteoarthritic cartilage undergo apoptotic changes. In addition, mineral deposits were detected in the upper zone of late stage osteoarthritic cartilage. Needle-like mineral crystals were often associated with matrix vesicles in these areas, as seen in calcifying growth plate cartilage.
Conclusion: Human osteoarthritic chondrocytes adjacent to the joint space undergo terminal differentiation, release alkaline phosphatase-, annexin II- and annexin V-containing matrix vesicles, which initiate mineral formation, and eventually die by apoptosis. Thus, these cells resume phenotypic changes similar to terminal differentiation of chondrocytes in growth plate cartilage culminating in the destruction of articular cartilage in osteoarthritis.