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Open Access Research article

Constitutive expression of cathepsin K in the human intervertebral disc: new insight into disc extracellular matrix remodeling via cathepsin K and receptor activator of nuclear factor-κB ligand

Helen E Gruber1*, Jane A Ingram1, Gretchen L Hoelscher1, Natalia Zinchenko1, H James Norton2 and Edward N Hanley1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Carolinas Medical Center, PO Box 32861, Charlotte, NC 28232, USA

2 Department of Biostatistics, Carolinas Medical Center, PO Box 32861, Charlotte, NC 28232, USA

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Arthritis Research & Therapy 2011, 13:R140  doi:10.1186/ar3454

Published: 31 August 2011

Abstract

Introduction

Cathepsin K is a recently discovered cysteine protease which cleaves the triple helical domains of type I to II collagen. It has been shown to be up-regulated in synovial tissue from osteoarthritic and rheumatoid patients, and is a component in normal and nonarthritic cartilage, where it increases with aging. Studies on heart valve development have recently shown that receptor activator of nuclear factor-κB ligand (RANKL) acts during valve remodeling to promote cathepsin K expression. Since extracellular matrix remodeling is a critical component of disc structure and biomechanical function, we hypothesized that cathepsin K and RANKL may be present in the human intervertebral disc.

Methods

Studies were performed following approval of the authors' Human Subjects Institutional Review Board. Six annulus specimens from healthier Thompson grade I to II discs, and 12 specimens from more degenerate grade III to IV discs were utilized in microarray analysis of RANKL and cathepsin K gene expression. Immunohistochemistry was also performed on 15 additional disc specimens to assess the presence of RANKL and cathepsin K.

Results

Cathepsin K gene expression was significantly greater in more degenerated grade III to IV discs compared to healthier grade I to II discs (P = 0.001). RANKL was also identified with immunohistochemistry and molecular analyses. RANKL gene expression was also significantly greater in more degenerated discs compared to healthier ones (P = 0.0001). A significant linear positive correlation was identified between expression of cathepsin K and RANKL (r2 = 92.2; P < 0.0001).

Conclusions

Extracellular matrix remodeling is a key element of disc biology. Our use of an appropriate antibody and gene expression studies showed that cathepsin K is indeed present in the human intervertebral disc. Immunolocalization and molecular analyses also confirmed that RANKL is present in the human disc. Expression of RANKL was found to be significantly greater in more degenerated compared to healthier discs (P = 0.0001). Cathepsin K gene expression levels showed a positive, significant correlation with RANKL expression. Based on these data, we propose that cathepsin K plays a significant role in disc matrix remodeling and in matrix degradation in the proinflammatory cytokine-rich microenvironment of the degenerating disc.