Autophagy is a process for turnover of intracellular organelles and molecules that protects cells during stress responses. We undertook this study to evaluate the potential roles of Unc-51–like kinase 1 (ULK1), an inducer of autophagy, Beclin1, a regulator of autophagy, and microtubule-associated protein 1 light chain 3 (LC3), which executes autophagy, in the development of osteoarthritis (OA) and in cartilage cell death.
Expression of ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 was analyzed in normal and OA human articular cartilage and in knee joints of mice with aging-related and surgically induced OA, using immunohistochemistry and Western blotting. Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) p85 expression was used to determine the correlation between cell death and autophagy.
ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 were constitutively expressed in normal human articular cartilage. ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 protein expression was reduced in OA chondrocytes and cartilage, but these 3 proteins were strongly expressed in the OA cell clusters. In mouse knee joints, loss of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) was observed at ages 9 months and 12 months and in the surgical OA model, 8 weeks after knee destabilization. Expression of ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 decreased together with GAG loss, while PARP p85 expression was increased.
Autophagy may be a protective or homeostatic mechanism in normal cartilage. In contrast, human OA and aging-related and surgically induced OA in mice are associated with a reduction and loss of ULK1, Beclin1, and LC3 expression and a related increase in apoptosis. These results suggest that compromised autophagy represents a novel mechanism in the development of OA.