During limb skeletogenesis, chondrocytes located at the epiphyseal ends of long bone anlagen develop into permanent articular chondrocytes that sustain joint function though life. Instead, the chondrocytes constituting the shaft are transient cells and are eventually replaced by bone via endochondral ossification. We initiated this project several years ago to identify the molecular mechanisms of formation and long-term phenotypic stabilization of articular chondrocytes and focused on transcriptional factor Erg. Erg belongs to the ets family of transcription factors that regulate several key processes, and is part of an ets subfamily that includes Fli-1. In the previous funding period, we showed that Erg is expressed during early synovial joint development along with Gdf5 and Wnt9a and its expression dwindles over time. To test function, we created floxed Erg mice and conditionally ablated Erg in developing joints by mating with Gdf5-Cre mice. Unexpectedly, limb joint development proceeded and the Erg-deficient mice survived to adulthood. To account for absence of a major joint developmental phenotype, we asked whether Fli-1 was co-expressed and in fact it was, and may have compensated for Erg absence. To test possible postnatal roles of Erg, we subjected 2 month-old Erg-deficient mice to knee's medial collateral ligament (MCL) transection to induce experimental osteoarthritis (OA). Strikingly, the Erg-deficient mice developed serious OA-like defects far sooner than operated wild type companions. Indeed, we observed similar severe OA-like defects in aging un-operated 7-11 month-old Erg-deficient mice, while control littermates displayed mild defects. To gain insights into how Erg maintains long-term articular chondrocyte function, we focused on parathyroid hormone-related protein (PTHrP) which is also expressed in developing joints, stabilizes the chondrocyte phenotype and prevents chondrocyte hypertrophy when over-expressed in cartilage (just as transgenic Erg over-expression does). We found that Erg (as well as Fli-1) stimulates PTHrP expression and the PTHrP gene promoter contains several conserved ets binding sites needed for responsiveness. These and other data lead to our central hypothesis is that Erg is essential for the development and long-term stabilization and function of articular chondrocytes and does so in cooperation with Fli-1 and PTHrP.
Our Aims are: (1) To uncover the respective roles of Erg and Fli-1 in joint formation and long-term articular cartilage stabilization;(2) To determine how Erg and Fli-1 regulate PTHrP expression;and (3) To determine if transgenic Erg expression protects joints from surgically-induced OA. The work will be carried out using diverse experimental approaches that include transgenic mouse genetics, microsurgery and cell phenotypic expression. It will produce fundamentally new data and insights into the biology and molecular biology of articular chondrocytes and will pave the way to create future repair and regeneration therapies by which function can be restored in articular chondrocytes affected by a variety of adverse conditions including osteoarthritis and natural aging.
Articular cartilage is essential for joint function, unhindered body movement and quality of life, but is affected by common diseases including osteoarthritis and becomes non-functional during natural aging. This project will continue to clarify mechanisms by which the tissue normally maintains its function and will thus generate important information that can be used to create novel joint repair and regeneration therapies.
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