Evidence that reduction in volume protects in situ articular chondrocytes from mechanical impact

Chondrocytes, the resident cells in articular cartilage, carry the burden of producing and maintaining the extracellular matrix (ECM). However, as these cells have a low proliferative capacity and are not readily replaced, chondrocyte death due to extreme forces may contribute to the pathogenesis of osteoarthritis (OA) after injury or may inhibit healing after osteochondral transplantation, a restorative procedure for damaged cartilage that requires a series of mechanical impacts to insert the graft. Consequently, there is a need to understand what factors influence the vulnerability of in situ chondrocytes to mechanical trauma. To this end, the objective of this study was to investigate how altering cell volume by different means (hydrostatic pressure, uniaxial load, and osmotic challenge with and without inhibition of regulatory volume decrease) affects the vulnerability of in situ chondrocytes to extreme mechanical forces. Using a custom experimental platform enabling testing of viable and intact murine cartilage-on-bone explants, we established a strong correlation between chondrocyte volume and vulnerability to impact injury wherein reduced volume was protective. Moreover, we found that the volume-perturbing interventions did not affect cartilage ECM mechanical properties, suggesting that their effects on chondrocyte vulnerability occurred at the cellular level. The findings of this study offer new avenues for novel strategies aimed at preventing chondrocyte loss during osteochondral grafting or to halting the progression of cell death after a joint destabilizing injury.