Objective: This study examined the morphology of chondrocytes in articular cartilage from osteoarthritic (OA) and non-OA human femoral heads and in particular the appearance of a sub-population of cells with multiple elongated processes radiating up to 30 microm into the extracellular matrix.
Methods: Cartilage explants were removed from 8 anatomical sites over the surface of OA (n=6) and non-OA (n=5) femoral heads. Cells were labeled for vimentin intermediate filaments and visualized using epi-fluorescence and confocal microscopy. The percentage of cells with elongated processes was correlated with macroscopic and histological indicators of osteoarthritis.
Results: Cells with processes accounted for less than 10% of the total cell population in non-OA cartilage. By contrast, in the peripheral regions of the OA femoral head these cells accounted for 20-45% of the total cell population, the differences being statistically significant. These peripheral areas are habitually non-load bearing and were also the most likely to show gross fibrillation and pannus formation. A statistically significant correlation was demonstrated between the percentage of cells with processes and the histological extent of the OA degradation, quantified in terms of the Mankin score.
Conclusions: The extension of cell processes, which may be associated with localized breakdown of the pericellular matrix, will undoubtedly alter numerous aspects of cell function including phenotypic expression and mechanotransduction. Hence these significant changes in chondrocyte morphology are likely to have important implications for the aetiology of osteoarthritis and the development of potential treatment strategies.