Introduction: Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) degeneration is observed in most osteoarthritis (OA)-affected knee joints. However, the specific spatial and temporal relations of these changes and their association with extracellular matrix (ECM) degeneration are not well understood. The objective of this study was to characterize the patterns and relations of aging-related and OA-associated changes in ACL cells and the ECM.
Methods: Human knee joints from 80 donors (age 23 through 94) were obtained at autopsy. ACL degeneration was assessed histologically by using a quantitative scoring system. Tissue sections were analyzed for cell density, cell organization, ECM components, ECM-degrading enzymes and markers of differentiation, proliferation, and stem cells.
Results: Total cell number in normal ACL decreased with aging but increased in degenerated ACL, because of the formation of perivascular cell aggregates and islands of chondrocyte-like cells. Matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-1, -3, and -13 expression was reduced in aging ACL but increased in degenerated ACL, mainly in the chondrocyte-like cells. Collagen I was expressed throughout normal and degenerated ACL. Collagen II and X were detected only in the areas with chondroid metaplasia, which also expressed collagen III. Sox9, Runt-related transcription factor 2 (Runx2), and scleraxis expression was increased in the chondrocyte-like cells in degenerated ACL. Alpha-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA), a marker of myofibroblasts and the progenitor cell marker STRO-1, decreased with aging in normal ACL. In degenerated ACL, the new cell aggregates were positive for α-SMA and STRO-1.
Conclusions: ACL aging is characterized by reduced cell density and activation. In contrast, ACL degeneration is associated with cell recruitment or proliferation, including progenitor cells or myofibroblasts. Abnormally differentiated chondrocyte-like cell aggregates in degenerated ACL produce abnormal ECM and may predispose to mechanical failure.