The discovery of the receptor activator of nuclear factor-kappaB ligand (RANKL)/RANK/osteoprotegerin (OPG) system and its role in the regulation of bone resorption exemplifies how both serendipity and a logic-based approach can identify factors that regulate cell function. Before this discovery in the mid to late 1990s, it had long been recognized that osteoclast formation was regulated by factors expressed by osteoblast/stromal cells, but it had not been anticipated that members of the tumor necrosis factor superfamily of ligands and receptors would be involved or that the factors involved would have extensive functions beyond bone remodeling. RANKL/RANK signaling regulates the formation of multinucleated osteoclasts from their precursors as well as their activation and survival in normal bone remodeling and in a variety of pathologic conditions. OPG protects the skeleton from excessive bone resorption by binding to RANKL and preventing it from binding to its receptor, RANK. Thus, RANKL/OPG ratio is an important determinant of bone mass and skeletal integrity. Genetic studies in mice indicate that RANKL/RANK signaling is also required for lymph node formation and mammary gland lactational hyperplasia, and that OPG also protects arteries from medial calcification. Thus, these tumor necrosis factor superfamily members have important functions outside bone. Although our understanding of the mechanisms whereby they regulate osteoclast formation has advanced rapidly during the past 10 years, many questions remain about their roles in health and disease. Here we review our current understanding of the role of the RANKL/RANK/OPG system in bone and other tissues.
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