Extracellular matrix ligand and stiffness modulate immature nucleus pulposus cell-cell interactions.
The nucleus pulposus (NP) of the intervertebral disc functions to provide compressive load support in the spine, and contains cells that play a critical role in the generation and maintenance of this tissue. The NP cell population undergoes significant morphological and phenotypic changes during maturation and aging, transitioning from large, vacuolated immature cells arranged in cell clusters to a sparse population of smaller, isolated chondrocyte-like cells. These morphological and organizational changes appear to correlate with the first signs of degenerative changes within the intervertebral disc. The extracellular matrix of the immature NP is a soft, gelatinous material containing multiple laminin isoforms, features that are unique to the NP relative to other regions of the disc and that change with aging and degeneration. Based on this knowledge, we hypothesized that a soft, laminin-rich extracellular matrix environment would promote NP cell-cell interactions and phenotypes similar to those found in immature NP tissues. NP cells were isolated from porcine intervertebral discs and cultured in matrix environments of varying mechanical stiffness that were functionalized with various matrix ligands; cellular responses to periods of culture were assessed using quantitative measures of cell organization and phenotype. Results show that soft (<720 Pa), laminin-containing extracellular matrix substrates promote NP cell morphologies, cell-cell interactions, and proteoglycan production in vitro, and that this behavior is dependent upon both extracellular matrix ligand and substrate mechanical properties. These findings indicate that NP cell organization and phenotype may be highly sensitive to their surrounding extracellular matrix environment.
Gilchrist, CL; Darling, EM; Chen, J; Setton, LA
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