Introduction: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is characterised by invasion of cartilage, bone and tendon by inflamed synovium. Previous studies in our laboratory have shown that hypoxia is a feature of RA synovitis. In the present study, we investigated the consequences of hypoxia on angiogenesis and synovial fibroblast migration in RA.
Methods: Synovial tissue was harvested from RA patients, and synovial membrane cells were cultured under conditions either of hypoxia (1% oxygen) or normoxia (21% oxygen). Protein levels of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) and angiogenic factors were measured, while RNA was extracted for PCR quantification of MMPs/tissue inhibitors of MMP (TIMPs) and angiogenic factors. Migration of RA synovial fibroblasts through collagen, and the effect of RA synovial cell supernatants in an in vitro angiogenesis assay, were utilised to determine the functional relevance of changes in mRNA/protein.
Results: We observed upregulation under hypoxic conditions of MMPs responsible for collagen breakdown, specifically collagenase MMP-8, and the gelatinases MMP-2 and MMP-9, at both mRNA and protein levels. Increased MT1-MMP mRNA was also observed, but no effect on TIMP-1 or TIMP-2 was detected. RA fibroblast migration across collagen was significantly increased under hypoxic conditions, and was dependent on MMP activity. Furthermore, expression of angiogenic stimuli, such as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), and VEGF/placental growth factor heterodimer, was also increased. Crucially, we show for the first time that hypoxia increased the angiogenic drive of RA cells, as demonstrated by enhanced blood vessel formation in an in vitro angiogenesis assay.
Conclusions: Hypoxia may be responsible for rendering RA synovial lining proangiogenic and proinvasive, thus leading to the debilitating features characteristic of RA.