Ann Rheum Dis 57:237-245 doi:10.1136/ard.57.4.237
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Articular cartilage superficial zone collagen birefringence reduced and cartilage thickness increased before surface fibrillation in experimental osteoarthritis


OBJECTIVES To investigate articular cartilage collagen network, thickness of birefringent cartilage zones, and glycosaminoglycan concentration in macroscopically normal looking knee joint cartilage of young beagles subjected to experimental slowly progressive osteoarthritis (OA).

METHODS OA was induced by a tibial 30° valgus osteotomy in 15 female beagles at the age of 3 months. Fifteen sisters were controls. Cartilage specimens were collected seven (Group 1) and 18 months (Group 2) postoperatively. Collagen induced optical path difference and cartilage zone thickness measurements were determined from histological sections of articular cartilage with smooth and intact surface by computer assisted quantitative polarised light microscopy. Volume density of cartilage collagen fibrils was determined by image analysis from transmission electron micrographs and content of glycosaminoglycans by quantitative digital densitometry from histological sections.

Results—In the superficial zone of the lateral tibial and femoral cartilage, the collagen induced optical path difference (birefringence) decreased by 19 to 71% (p < 0.05) seven months postoperatively. This suggests that severe superficial collagen fibril network deterioration took place, as 18 months postoperatively, macroscopic and microscopic OA was present in many cartilage areas. Thickness of the uncalcified cartilage increased while the superficial zone became thinner in the same sites. In operated dogs, glycosaminoglycan content first increased (Group 1) in the lateral tibial condyle and then decreased (Group 2) (p < 0.05).

Conclusion—In this OA model, derangement of the superficial zone collagen network was the probable reason for birefringence reduction. This change occurred well before macroscopic OA.