Osteoarthritis (OA) is characterized by a loss of joint mobility and pain resulting from progressive destruction and loss of articular cartilage secondary to chondrocyte death and/ or senescence. Certain stimuli including nitric oxide (NO) and the pro-inflammatory cytokine tumor necrosis factor α (TNF-α have been implicated in this chondrocyte death and the subsequent accelerated damage to cartilage. In this study, we demonstrate that a corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) family peptide, urocortin (Ucn), is produced by a human chondrocyte cell line, C-20/A4, and acts both as an endogenous survival signal and as a cytoprotective agent reducing the induction of apoptosis by NO but not TNF-α when added exogenously. Furthermore, treatment with the NO donor S-nitroso-N-acetyl-D-L-penicillamine upregulates chondrocyte Ucn expression, whereas treatment with TNF-α does not. The chondroprotective effects of Ucn are abolished by both specific ligand depletion (with an anti-Ucn antibody) and by CRF receptor blockade with the pan-CRFR antagonist α-helical CRH(9-41). CRFR expression was confirmed by reverse transcription-PCR with subsequent amplicon sequence analysis and demonstrates that C-20/A4 cells express both CRFR1 and CRFR2, specifically CRFR1α and CRFR2β. Protein expression of these receptors was confirmed by western blotting. The presence of both Ucn and its receptors in these cells, coupled with the induction of Ucn by NO, suggests the existence of an endogenous autocrine/paracrine chondroprotective mechanism against stimuli inducing chondrocyte apoptosis via the intrinsic/mitochondrial pathway.
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