Degenerate intervertebral disc-like pH induces a catabolic mechano-response in human nucleus pulposus cells.

Nathan W Hodson, Sonal Patel, Stephen Richardson, Judith Hoyland, Hamish Gilbert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mechanical stimulation is known to influence intervertebral disc (IVD) cell behavior and function, but the effect on disc cells is routinely considered in isolation from other microenvironmental factors. Acidic pH has been shown to be a prominent and detrimental microenvironmental factor present in degenerate IVDs, but its influence on the human disc cell mechanoresponse has never been studied. We investigated the response of agarose‐encapsulated human nucleus pulposus (NP) cells to 0.004 MPa, 1.0 Hz and 1 hour of compression (Flexcell FX4000 Compression System) under pH conditions representative of nondegenerate (pH 7.1) and degenerate (pH 6.5) IVDs. Cell viability, extracellular matrix production, and expression of anabolic/anti‐catabolic and catabolic genes were assessed. We report that preculture of NP cells in agarose gels was required in order for cells to be mechanoresponsive, and this correlated with increased type VI collagen, α5β1 integrin, and fibronectin expression. Furthermore, the matrix homeostatic response observed at pH 7.1 (representative of nondegenerate IVDs; increased aggrecan [AGC], tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases‐1 [TIMP1], matrix metalloproteinase‐3 [MMP3], a disintegrin and metalloproteinase with thrombospondin motif‐5 [ADAMTS5] gene expression) was RGD‐integrin dependent, whereas only MMP3 remained mechanoresponsive at pH 6.5, and this was independent of RGD‐integrins. Our findings suggest differential mechanotransduction pathways operating for specific genes, with RGD‐integrin dependent AGC expression, but not RGD‐independent MMP3 expression, inhibited at pH representative of degenerate IVDs (pH 6.5), which could contribute to the catabolic phenotype observed during IVD degeneration.

Clinical significance
Characterizing the influence of the mechanical and chemical intervertebral disc microenvironment on disc cells, particularly in disc degeneration, could help develop future therapeutic strategies for the treatment of discogenic back pain.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Orthopaedic Research – Spine
Issue number1
Early online date11 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018


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