Objective. Mechanical signals are key determinants in tissue morphogenesis, maintenance, and restoration strategies in regenerative medicine, although molecular mechanisms of mechanotransduction remain to be elucidated. This study was undertaken to investigate the mechanotransduction process of expression of superficial zone protein (SZP), a critical joint lubricant. Methods. Regional expression of SZP was first quantified in cartilage obtained from the femoral condyles of immature bovines, using immunoblotting, and visualized by immunohistochemistry. Contact pressure mapping in whole joints was accomplished using pressure-sensitive film and a load application system for joint testing. Friction measurements on cartilage plugs were acquired under boundary lubrication conditions using a pin-on-disk tribometer modified for reciprocating sliding. Direct mechanical stimulation by shear loading of articular cartilage explants was performed with and without inhibition of transforming growth factor β (TGFβ) signaling, and SZP content in media was quantified by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Results. An unexpected pattern of SZP localization in knee cartilage was initially identified, with anterior regions exhibiting high levels of SZP expression. Regional SZP patterns were regulated by mechanical signals and correlated with tribological behavior. Direct relationships were demonstrated between high levels of SZP expression, maximum contact pressures, and low friction coefficients. Levels of SZP expression and accumulation were increased by applying shear stress, depending on location within the knee, and were decreased to control levels with the use of a specific inhibitor of TGFβ receptor type I kinase and subsequent phospho-Smad2/3 activity. Conclusion. These findings indicate a new role for TGFβ signaling in the mechanism of cellular mechanotransduction that is especially significant for joint lubrication.
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