Suppression of type II collagen (COL2A1) cleavage by transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta2 in cultured human osteoarthritic cartilage has been shown to be associated with decreased expression of collagenases, cytokines, genes associated with chondrocyte hypertrophy, and upregulation of prostaglandin (PG)E2 production. This results in a normalization of chondrocyte phenotypic expression. Here we tested the hypothesis that PGE2 is associated with the suppressive effects of TGF-beta2 in osteoarthritic (OA) cartilage and is itself capable of downregulating collagen cleavage and hypertrophy in human OA articular cartilage. Full-depth explants of human OA knee articular cartilage from arthroplasty were cultured with a wide range of concentrations of exogenous PGE2 (1 pg/ml to 10 ng/ml). COL2A1 cleavage was measured by ELISA. Proteoglycan content was determined by a colorimetric assay. Gene expression studies were performed with real-time PCR. In explants from patients with OA, collagenase-mediated COL2A1 cleavage was frequently downregulated at 10 pg/ml (in the range 1 pg/ml to 10 ng/ml) by PGE2 as well as by 5 ng/ml TGF-beta2. In control OA cultures (no additions) there was an inverse relationship between PGE2 concentration (range 0 to 70 pg/ml) and collagen cleavage. None of these concentrations of added PGE2 inhibited the degradation of proteoglycan (aggrecan). Real-time PCR analysis of articular cartilage from five patients with OA revealed that PGE2 at 10 pg/ml suppressed the expression of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-13 and to a smaller extent MMP-1, as well as the proinflammatory cytokines IL-1beta and TNF-alpha and type X collagen (COL10A1), the last of these being a marker of chondrocyte hypertrophy. These studies show that PGE2 at concentrations much lower than those generated in inflammation is often chondroprotective in that it is frequently capable of selectively suppressing the excessive collagenase-mediated COL2A1 cleavage found in OA cartilage. The results also show that chondrocyte hypertrophy in OA articular cartilage is functionally linked to this increased cleavage and is often suppressed by these low concentrations of added PGE2. Together these initial observations reveal the importance of very low concentrations of PGE2 in maintaining a more normal chondrocyte phenotype.