The role of articular cartilage in diarthrodial joints is primarily mechanical as the tissue provides a nearly frictionless, load-bearing surface that supports and distributes forces generated during joint loading. Embedded within the extensive cartilage extracellular matrix (ECM), chondrocytes are surrounded by a narrow, distinct pericellular matrix (PCM) that is thought to regulate the biomechanical microenvironment of the cell and influence chondrocyte metabolism, cartilage homeostasis, and overall joint health. While previous studies of PCM mechanical properties required physical extraction of the cell and PCM from the tissue, atomic force microscopy (AFM) provides a means for high resolution microindentation testing that can be used to measure local mechanical properties in situ. This dissertation develops and applies AFM microindentation techniques to 1) evaluate the microscale elastic properties of the cartilage PCM and ECM in situ and 2) correlate site-specific biochemical composition with biomechanical properties of the PCM and ECM.
An AFM-based stiffness mapping technique was experimentally validated and applied to cartilage sections to evaluate ECM and PCM properties in situ with minimal disruption of native matrix integration. As expected, PCM elastic moduli were significantly less than ECM moduli, uniform with depth, and mechanically isotropic. ECM moduli exhibited distinct depth-dependent anisotropy and unexpectedly, were found to decrease with depth from the articular surface. Both the PCM and ECM exhibited alterations in microscale moduli and their spatial distributions when evaluated in cartilage presenting early degenerative changes associated with osteoarthritis (OA) as compared to healthy tissue.
The ability to correlate site-specific biochemical composition with local biomechanical properties provides a more complete characterization of the chondrocyte microenvironment. To this end, we developed novel immunofluorescence (IF)–guided AFM stiffness mapping and demonstrated that PCM mechanical properties correlate with the presence of type VI collagen. Extending this technique by using dual IF, we presented new evidence for a defining role of perlecan in the PCM, showing that interior regions of the PCM rich in perlecan and type VI collagen exhibit lower elastic moduli than peripheral PCM and ECM regions lacking perlecan. Furthermore, lower moduli at the PCM interior were significantly influenced by the presence of heparan sulfate. IFguided AFM stiffness mapping was combined with enzymatic digestion to demonstrate that the micromechanical properties of the PCM exhibit high resistance to specific enzymatic digestion of aggrecan and aggrecan-associated glycosaminoglycans but are vulnerable to proteolytic degradation by leukocyte elastase.
Overall, this research generates new insights into the complex structural, compositional, and functional relationships between the cartilage ECM and PCM and provides the tools and framework for further studies to continue to investigate their importance in regulating chondrocyte physiology in health and disease.
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