Alkaptonuria is a genetic disorder of tyrosine metabolism, resulting in elevated circulating concentrations of homogentisic acid. Homogentisic acid is deposited as a polymer, termed ochronotic pigment, in collagenous tissues, especially cartilages of weight-bearing joints, leading to a severe osteoarthropathy. We undertook this study to investigate the initiation and progression of ochronosis from the earliest detection of pigment through complete joint failure.
Nine joint samples with varying severities of ochronosis were obtained from alkaptonuria patients undergoing surgery and compared to joint samples obtained from osteoarthritis (OA) patients. Samples were analyzed by light and fluorescence microscopy, 3-dimensional scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and the quantitative backscattered electron mode of SEM. Cartilage samples were mechanically tested by compression to determine Young's modulus of pigmented, nonpigmented, and OA cartilage samples.
In alkaptonuria samples with the least advanced ochronosis, pigment was observed intracellularly and in the territorial matrix of individual chondrocytes at the boundary of the subchondral bone and calcified cartilage. In more advanced ochronosis, pigmentation was widespread throughout the hyaline cartilage in either granular composition or as blanket pigmentation in which there is complete and homogenous pigmentation of cartilage matrix. Once hyaline cartilage was extensively pigmented, there was aggressive osteoclastic resorption of the subchondral plate. Pigmented cartilage became impacted on less highly mineralized trabeculae and embedded in the marrow space. Pigmented cartilage samples were much stiffer than nonpigmented or OA cartilage as revealed by a significant difference in Young's modulus.
Using alkaptonuria cartilage specimens with a wide spectrum of pigmentation, we have characterized the progression of ochronosis. Intact cartilage appears to be resistant to pigmentation but becomes susceptible following focal changes in calcified cartilage. Ochronosis spreads throughout the cartilage, altering the mechanical properties. In advanced ochronosis, there is aggressive resorption of the underlying calcified cartilage leading to an extraordinary phenotype in which there is complete loss of the subchondral plate. These findings should contribute to better understanding of cartilage–subchondral interactions in arthropathies.