Objective: The receptor activator of nuclear factor kappaB (RANK)/RANK ligand (RANKL) pathway is critical in osteoclastogenesis and bone resorption and has been implicated in the process of focal bone erosion in arthritis. This study was undertaken to identify in vivo the hitherto-unknown origin and localization of RANK-expressing osteoclast precursor cells at sites of bone erosion in arthritis.
Methods: DBA-1 mice were immunized with bovine type II collagen/Freund's complete adjuvant and were given an intraperitoneal booster injection of type II collagen on day 21. Arthritis was monitored visually, and joint pathology was examined histologically. RANK and RANKL expression were analyzed using specific immunohistochemistry, and tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase (TRAP) staining was performed. In addition, TRAP and cathepsin K messenger RNA expression were analyzed by in situ hybridization.
Results: A marked increase in the number of cells expressing RANK correlated with the progression of synovial inflammation and clinical disease severity in evolving collagen-induced arthritis (CIA). Interestingly, RANK expression demonstrated a gradient pattern with increased numbers of RANK-positive cells within the synovial infiltrate in areas closer to periosteum and cortical bone. Cells expressing RANK included cells in synovial tissue, bone lining cells on the surface of trabecular bone at sites of erosion, and cells in periosteal areas adjacent to synovial inflammation. In areas where RANK-positive cells were abundant, TRAP-positive, multinucleated osteoclast-like cells were also present at sites of focal bone erosion, suggesting differentiation of synovially derived RANK-positive osteoclast precursor cells into osteoclasts. In addition, TRAP- and cathepsin K-double-positive osteoclast-like cells were detected on the synovial side of cortical bone at sites of early and advanced cortical bone erosion. Sites of RANK expression also correlated well with sites of RANKL expression, and there was a close correlation of the temporal expression of the receptor-ligand pair.
Conclusion: Cells expressing RANK increased in abundance with the progression of arthritis in evolving CIA, and sites of RANK-expressing cells correlated with sites of TRAP-positive, multinucleated osteoclast-like cells as well as with sites of RANKL expression. These data support the hypothesis that the RANK/RANKL pathway plays an important role in the process of bone erosion in CIA.