Introduction: Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative disease characterized by cartilage breakdown in the synovial joints. The presence of low-grade inflammation in OA joints is receiving increasing attention, with synovitis shown to be present even in the early stages of the disease. How the synovial inflammation arises is unclear, but proteins in the synovial fluid of affected joints could conceivably contribute. We therefore surveyed the proteins present in OA synovial fluid and assessed their immunostimulatory properties.
Methods: We used mass spectrometry to survey the proteins present in the synovial fluid of patients with knee OA. We used a multiplex bead-based immunoassay to measure levels of inflammatory cytokines in serum and synovial fluid from patients with knee OA and from patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), as well as in sera from healthy individuals. Significant differences in cytokine levels between groups were determined by significance analysis of microarrays, and relations were determined by unsupervised hierarchic clustering. To assess the immunostimulatory properties of a subset of the identified proteins, we tested the proteins' ability to induce the production of inflammatory cytokines by macrophages. For proteins found to be stimulatory, the macrophage stimulation assays were repeated by using Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4)-deficient macrophages.
Results: We identified 108 proteins in OA synovial fluid, including plasma proteins, serine protease inhibitors, proteins indicative of cartilage turnover, and proteins involved in inflammation and immunity. Multiplex cytokine analysis revealed that levels of several inflammatory cytokines were significantly higher in OA sera than in normal sera, and levels of inflammatory cytokines in synovial fluid and serum were, as expected, higher in RA samples than in OA samples. As much as 36% of the proteins identified in OA synovial fluid were plasma proteins. Testing a subset of these plasma proteins in macrophage stimulation assays, we found that Gc-globulin, α1-microglobulin, and α2-macroglobulin can signal via TLR4 to induce macrophage production of inflammatory cytokines implicated in OA.
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that plasma proteins present in OA synovial fluid, whether through exudation from plasma or production by synovial tissues, could contribute to low-grade inflammation in OA by functioning as so-called damage-associated molecular patterns in the synovial joint.