Introduction: Recent findings suggest that articular cartilage contains mesenchymal progenitor cells. The aim of this study was to examine the distribution of stem cell markers (Notch-1, Stro-1 and VCAM-1) and of molecules that modulate progenitor differentiation (Notch-1 and Sox9) in normal adult human articular cartilage and in osteoarthritis (OA) cartilage.
Methods: Expression of the markers was analyzed by immunohistochemistry (IHC) and flow cytometry. Hoechst 33342 dye was used to identify and sort the cartilage side population (SP). Multilineage differentiation assays including chondrogenesis, osteogenesis and adipogenesis were performed on SP and non-SP (NSP) cells.
Results: A surprisingly high number (>45%) of cells were positive for Notch-1, Stro-1 and VCAM-1 throughout normal cartilage. Expression of these markers was higher in the superficial zone (SZ) of normal cartilage as compared to the middle zone (MZ) and deep zone (DZ). Non-fibrillated OA cartilage SZ showed reduced Notch-1 and Sox9 staining frequency, while Notch-1, Stro-1 and VCAM-1 positive cells were increased in the MZ. Most cells in OA clusters were positive for each molecule tested. The frequency of SP cells in cartilage was 0.14 +/- 0.05% and no difference was found between normal and OA. SP cells displayed chondrogenic and osteogenic but not adipogenic differentiation potential.
Conclusions: These results show a surprisingly high number of cells that express putative progenitor cell markers in human cartilage. In contrast, the percentage of SP cells is much lower and within the range of expected stem cell frequency. Thus, markers such as Notch-1, Stro-1 or VCAM-1 may not be useful to identify progenitors in cartilage. Instead, their increased expression in OA cartilage implicates involvement in the abnormal cell activation and differentiation process characteristic of OA.