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To test the hypothesis that physical disruption of an intervertebral disc disturbs cell-matrix binding, leading to cell clustering and increased expression of matrix degrading enzymes that contribute towards degenerative disc cell phenotype. Lumbar disc tissue was removed at surgery from 21 patients with disc herniation, 11 with disc degeneration, and 8 with adolescent scoliosis. 5 μm sections were examined with histology, and 30-µm sections by confocal microscopy. Antibodies were used against integrin α5beta1, matrix metalloproteinases (MMP) 1, MMP-3, caspase 3, and denatured collagen types I and II. Spatial associations were sought between cell clustering and various degenerative features. An additional, 11 non-herniated human discs were used to examine causality: half of each specimen was cultured in a manner that allowed free 'unconstrained' swelling (similar to a herniated disc in vivo), while the other half was cultured within a perspex ring that allowed 'constrained' swelling. Changes were monitored over 36 h using live-cell imaging. 1,9-Di-methyl methylene blue (DMMB) assay for glycosaminoglycan loss was carried out from tissue medium. Partially constrained specimens showed little swelling or cell movement in vitro. In contrast, unconstrained swelling significantly increased matrix distortion, glycosaminoglycan loss, exposure of integrin binding sites, expression of MMPs 1 and 3, and collagen denaturation. In the association studies, herniated disc specimens showed changes that resembled unconstrained swelling in vitro. In addition, they exhibited increased cell clustering, apoptosis, MMP expression, and collagen denaturation compared to 'control' discs. Results support our hypothesis. Further confirmation will require longitudinal animal experiments.

Original publication




Journal article


Cell death discov

Publication Date





Diseases, Molecular modelling