A model of early osteoarthritis (OA) induced in ovine joints by medial meniscectomy was used to study the effects of two hyaluronan (HA) preparations (AHA and DHA) on cartilage composition and proteoglycan (PG) metabolism. DHA was an HA preparation with an average molecular weight (MW) of approximately 2.0 x 10(6) d, and AHA had an MW of approximately 8.0 x 10(5) d. Both preparations were administered intraarticularly once a week for 5 weeks starting 16 weeks after meniscectomy, and animals (n = 5) were killed 5 weeks after the last injection. Meniscectomized, saline-injected (n = 5) and nonoperated (n = 5) animals were used for controls. At necropsy, 3-mm-diameter full-depth cartilage plugs were sampled under sterile conditions from specific locations on the medial and lateral femoral condyles, tibial plateaus, patella, and trochlear groove. The cartilage plugs were cultured in Hams-F12 medium supplemented with 10% fetal calf serum for 24 hours, then for a further 48 hours in the presence of H2(35)SO4 to determine the biosynthesis of PGs. The percentage of 35S-PGs and sulfated glycosaminoglycans released into the media was also ascertained. The cartilage adjacent to the plugs was analyzed for collagen and proteoglycan content and differential extractability with guanidine hydrochloride (GuHCl) solutions. The extractability of PGs with 0.4 mol/L GuHCl (nondissociative conditions) was lower from the medial femoral cartilages of the DHA-treated group than from the corresponding saline-treated group. In contrast, the release of 35S-PGs from the tibial cartilages of the DHA-treated animals was higher than in the saline-treated group. The biosynthesis of 35S-PGs, determined in vitro, for cartilage derived from the medial compartment was generally lower than for the lateral regions of the meniscectomized joints. The biosynthetic activity was further reduced in joints injected with the two HA preparations, but DHA reduced 35SO4 incorporation into PGs more than AHA. It was concluded that reduced biosynthesis of 35S-PGs and secretion into media was a consequence of increased loading of joints in the HA-treated animals rather than a direct effect of these preparations on chondrocyte metabolism.