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The extracellular matrix (ECM) has long been regarded as a packing material; supporting cells within the tissue and providing tensile strength and protection from mechanical stress. There is little surprise when one considers the dynamic nature of many of the individual proteins that contribute to the ECM, that we are beginning to appreciate a more nuanced role for the ECM in tissue homeostasis and disease. Articular cartilage is adapted to be able to perceive and respond to mechanical load. Indeed, physiological loads are essential to maintain cartilage thickness in a healthy joint and excessive mechanical stress is associated with the breakdown of the matrix that is seen in osteoarthritis (OA). Although the trigger by which increased mechanical stress drives catabolic pathways remains unknown, one mechanism by which cartilage responds to increased compressive load is by the release of growth factors that are sequestered in the pericellular matrix. These are heparan sulfate-bound growth factors that appear to be largely chondroprotective and displaced by an aggrecan-dependent sodium flux. Emerging evidence suggests that the released growth factors act in a coordinated fashion to drive cartilage repair. Thus, we are beginning to appreciate that the ECM is the key mechano-sensor and mechano-effector in cartilage, responsible for directing subsequent cellular events of relevance to joint health and disease.

Original publication




Journal article


International journal of molecular sciences



Publication Date





6003 - 6003