Cellular level is not completely understood, but both aging and loading-induced stresses have been shown to undermine cell functions related to the maintenance and restoration of the cartilage matrix. Based on precedents set by studies of other age-related degenerative diseases, we have focused our laboratory work on senescence as the cause of age-dependent decline in chondrocytes and on the impact of excessive mechanical stresses in promoting senescence. We hypothesized that senescent chondrocytes accumulate with age in articular cartilage and we propose that excessive mechanical stress plays a role in this process by promoting oxidative damage in chondrocytes that ultimately causes them to senesce. To test this hypothesis, we measured cell senescence markers (beta-galactosidase expression, mitotic activity, and telomere length) in human articular cartilage chondrocytes, and determined the effects of chronic exposure to oxidative stress on chondrocyte growth and senescence. In addition, we measured the effects of abnormally high levels of mechanical shear stress on the release of oxidants in cartilage explants. We found that senescent chondrocytes accumulated with age in articular cartilage. In vitro studies showed that chronic oxidative stress caused by repeated exposure to peroxide, or by growth under superphysiologic oxygen tension caused chondrocyte populations to senesce prematurely, before extensive telomere erosion occurred. Mechanical shear stress applied to cartilage explants considerably increased the production of oxidants. These observations support the hypothesis that senescence accounts for age-related decline in chondrocyte function and indicate that mechanically induced oxidative damage plays a role in this process. This suggests that new efforts to prevent the development and progression of osteoarthritis should include strategies that slow the progression of chondrocyte senescence or replace senescent cells.

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