Objective: Autophagy is a process for turnover of intracellular organelles and molecules that protects cells during stress responses. We undertook this study to evaluate the potential roles of Unc-51-like kinase 1 (ULK1), an inducer of autophagy, Beclin1, a regulator of autophagy, and microtubule-associated protein 1 light chain 3 (LC3), which executes autophagy, in the development of osteoarthritis (OA) and in cartilage cell death.
Methods: Expression of ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 was analyzed in normal and OA human articular cartilage and in knee joints of mice with aging-related and surgically induced OA, using immunohistochemistry and Western blotting. Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) p85 expression was used to determine the correlation between cell death and autophagy.
Results: ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 were constitutively expressed in normal human articular cartilage. ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 protein expression was reduced in OA chondrocytes and cartilage, but these 3 proteins were strongly expressed in the OA cell clusters. In mouse knee joints, loss of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) was observed at ages 9 months and 12 months and in the surgical OA model, 8 weeks after knee destabilization. Expression of ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 decreased together with GAG loss, while PARP p85 expression was increased.
Conclusion: Autophagy may be a protective or homeostatic mechanism in normal cartilage. In contrast, human OA and aging-related and surgically induced OA in mice are associated with a reduction and loss of ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 expression and a related increase in apoptosis. These results suggest that compromised autophagy represents a novel mechanism in the development of OA.