Degenerative disc disease of herniated intervertebral discs is associated with extracellular matrix remodeling, vimentin-positive cells and cell death

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Journal Article
Annals of Anatomy, 2011, 193 (2), pp. 156 - 162
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We studied patients with degenerative disc disease (DDD) to demonstrate that i) remodeling of the extracellular matrix (ECM) in the intervertebral disc (IVD), particularly the elastic fiber system, of subjects with herniated discs is dysregulated and that ii) it is accompanied by accelerated elastin degradation due to increased expression of matrix metalloprotease-9 (MMP-9).Moreover we wanted to obtain a deeper insight into the pathogenesis of DDD through the study of ECM calcification, DNA fragmentation using TUNEL analysis, BAX, bcl-2 and vimentin immunopositive cells.We studied herniated discs from patients of three age groups (group 1 = 30-40 years; group 2 = 40-50 years; and group 3 = 50-65 years) to evaluate the oxytalan fiber systemMMP-9, apoptosis and vimentin immunopositive cells. The results demonstrated the presence of oxytalan fibers in the annulus fibrosus (AF) and the nucleus pulposus (NP) of herniated discs. In the AF oxytalan fibers replaced disrupted mature elastic fibers in calcified areas, while in the NP they were mostly found in nests at the periphery of chondrocytes. MMP-9 was prevalently observed in NP nests above all in group 1 and group 3 discs while group 2 exhibited a lower MMP-9 immunostaining. Activation of the apoptotic process was demonstrated by upregulated BAX expression in group 3. BAX immunopositivity was inversely mirrored by a significant decrease in bcl-2 expression. Intermediate filament protein vimentin was strongly expressed only in group 1 samples. A large number of apoptotic TUNEL+ cells was observed in group 3 specimens.The presence of oxytalan fibers may be the result of a process of incomplete elastogenesis, or a response to mechanical stress trying to functionally replace the lack of elastic fibers. MMP-9 expression seems to relate to disc damage, while chondrocyte BAX upregulation and TUNEL+ cell staining revealed apoptosis activation regardless of patient age. Vimentin immunopositivity was clearly detected in group 1 annulus fibrosus and nucleus pulposus cells.In conclusion, as demonstrated by the vimentin-positive cells, the injured IVD has endogenous resources that can stem the DDD damage, including substitution of damaged elastic fibers by oxytalan fibers. In addition, induction of apoptosis suggests an increased cell turnover in response to repair needs. © 2011 Elsevier GmbH.
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