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01.08.2011 | Research article | Ausgabe 4/2011 Open Access

Arthritis Research & Therapy 4/2011

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

Arthritis Research & Therapy > Ausgabe 4/2011
Helen E Gruber, Jane A Ingram, Gretchen L Hoelscher, Natalia Zinchenko, H James Norton, Edward N Hanley Jr
Wichtige Hinweise

Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1186/​ar3454) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors' contributions

HEG, in collaboration with ENH, conceived and planned the study. GLH performed microarray analyses, while JAI and NZ performed histology and immunohistochemistry. HEG wrote the manuscript and performed statistical analyses with HJN. Co-authors agreed with the finalized submission. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.



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.


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.


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).


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.
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