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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A complex interaction between Wnt signaling and TNF-α in nucleus pulposus cells

Akihiko Hiyama12*, Katsuya Yokoyama12, Tadashi Nukaga12, Daisuke Sakai12 and Joji Mochida12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Surgical Science, Tokai University School of Medicine, 143 Shimokasuya, Isehara, Kanagawa 259-1193, Japan

2 Research Center for Regenerative Medicine, Tokai University School of Medicine, 143 Shimokasuya, Isehara, Kanagawa 259-1193, Japan

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Arthritis Research & Therapy 2013, 15:R189  doi:10.1186/ar4379

Published: 14 November 2013



Increased expression of the proinflammatory cytokine TNF-α in intervertebral discs (IVDs) leads to inflammation, which results in progressive IVD degeneration. We have previously reported that activation of Wnt-β-catenin (hereafter called Wnt) signaling suppresses the proliferation of nucleus pulposus cells and induces cell senescence, suggesting that Wnt signaling triggers the process of degeneration of the IVD. However, it is not known whether cross talk between TNF-α and Wnt signaling plays a role in the regulation of nucleus pulposus cells. The goal of the present study was to examine the effect of the interaction between Wnt signaling and the proinflammatory cytokine TNF-α in nucleus pulposus cells.


Cells isolated from rat nucleus pulposus regions of IVDs were cultured in monolayers, and the expression and promoter activity of Wnt signaling and TNF-α were evaluated. We also examined whether the inhibition of Wnt signaling using cotransfection with Dickkopf (DKK) isoforms and Sclerostin (SOST) could block the effects of pathological TNF-α expression in nucleus pulposus cells.


TNF-α stimulated the expression and promoter activity of Wnt signaling in nucleus pulposus cells. In addition, the activation of Wnt signaling by 6-bromoindirubin-3′-oxime (BIO), which is a selective inhibitor of glycogen synthase kinase 3 (GSK-3) activity that activates Wnt signaling, increased TNF-α expression and promoter activity. Conversely, the suppression of TNF-α promoter activity using a β-catenin small interfering RNA was evident. Moreover, transfection with DKK-3, DKK-4, or SOST, which are inhibitors of Wnt signaling, blocked Wnt signaling-mediated TNF-α activation; these effects were not observed for DKK-1 or DKK-2.


Here, we have demonstrated that Wnt signaling regulates TNF-α and that Wnt signaling and TNF-α form a positive-feedback loop in nucleus pulposus cells. The results of the present study provide in vitro evidence that activation of Wnt signaling upregulates the TNF-α expression and might cause the degeneration of nucleus pulposus cells. We speculate that blocking this pathway might protect nucleus pulposus cells against degeneration.