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Blocking p38 signalling inhibits chondrogenesis in vitro but not ankylosis in a model of ankylosing spondylitis in vivo
  1. Kirsten Braem,
  2. Frank P Luyten,
  3. Rik J U Lories
  1. Laboratory for Skeletal Development and Joint Disorders, Division of Rheumatology, KULeuven, Leuven, Belgium
  1. Correspondence to Rik Lories, Laboratory for Skeletal Development and Joint Disorders, Division of Rheumatology, UZ Gasthuisberg – Rheumatology, Herestraat 49, 3000 Leuven, Belgium; rik.lories{at}


Objectives To investigate p38 mitogen activated protein kinase (MAPK) signalling in an in vitro model of bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) and transforming growth factor β (TGFβ)-induced chondrogenesis and in vivo, with specific attention to its potential role in ankylosing enthesitis.

Methods Human periosteum-derived cells (hPDCs) were cultured in pellets and stimulated with BMP2 or TGFβ1 in the presence or absence of a p38 inhibitor SB203580 or proinflammatory cytokines. Chondrogenic differentiation was evaluated using quantitative PCR. Male DBA/1 mice from different litters were caged together at the age of 8 weeks and treated with SB203580 in both a preventive and therapeutic strategy. The mice were evaluated for prospective signs of arthritis and the toe joints were analysed histologically to assess disease severity.

Results p38 inhibition by SB203580 and proinflammatory cytokines downregulated chondrogenic markers in pellet cultures stimulated by BMP2 or TGFβ1. In contrast, the in vivo experiments resulted in an increased clinical incidence of arthritis and pathology severity score, reflecting progression towards ankylosis in mice given SB203580.

Conclusion Inhibition of p38 inhibited chondrogenic differentiation of progenitor cells, showing that not only the SMAD signalling pathways and also alternative activation of MAPKs including p38 contribute to chondrogenesis. Such an inhibitory effect is not found in an in vivo model of joint ankylosis and spondyloarthritis. Increased incidence and severity of disease in preventive experiments and shifts in disease stages in a therapeutic experimental set-up suggest that specific inhibition of p38 may have deleterious rather than beneficial effects.

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  • Funding This work was supported by a GOA grant from KULeuven and FWO grant G.0213.07. KB is the recipient of a PhD fellowship from the Institute for Science and Technology (IWT Vlaanderen).

  • Ethics approval All experiments were approved by the Ethics Committee for Animal Research (KU Leuven, Belgium).

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.