Expression of TRAIL and the death receptors DR4 and DR5 correlates with progression of degeneration in human intervertebral disks

Helge Bertram, Andreas Nerlich, Georg Omlor, Florian Geiger, Gerald Zimmermann, Joerg Fellenberg
Modern Pathology 2009, 22 (7): 895-905
Intervertebral disks degenerate far earlier than other musculoskeletal tissues and apoptosis has been suggested to have a vital function in promoting the degeneration process that is strongly associated with back pain. However, the molecular mediators of apoptosis in the intervertebral disk are poorly understood. Fas/FasL, TRAIL/DR4, TRAIL/DR5 and TNF-alpha/TNFR1 are ligand/receptor pairs of the tumor necrosis factor/nerve growth factor family, which are able to induce apoptosis by trimerization of the receptor by its corresponding ligand. We investigated which of these molecules are expressed in intervertebral disks and whether their expression correlates to disk degeneration. Intervertebral disks from 28 donors (age 12-70 years) suffering from scoliosis, vertebrae fracture or disk degeneration were scored histologically for degeneration and analyzed for gene expression of FasL/Fas, TRAIL/DR4, TNF-alpha/TNFR1 and caspase 8. Protein expression of FasL and TRAIL was assessed by immunohistology and apoptotic cell death was quantified by poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) p85 staining. Isolated disk cells were analyzed by flow cytometry for Fas, FasL, TRAIL, DR4 and DR5 expression. Gene expression of TRAIL (P=0.002) and caspase 8 (P=0.027) significantly correlated with degeneration. TRAIL expression further correlated with cellularity (P=0.04), muccoid matrix changes (P=0.009) and tears and cleft formation (P=0.019). FasL and TRAIL expression was confirmed by immunohistology and PARP cleavage was significantly associated with degeneration (P=0.027). Flow cytometry on isolated disk cells revealed correlations between DR4 and degeneration (P=0.014), DR4/DR5 double-positive cells and degeneration (P=0.019), as well as DR5 and changes in tissue granularity (P=0.03). This is the first study that shows that intervertebral disk cells express TRAIL, DR4 and DR5, which correlate to the degenerative state of the disk. Therefore, disk cells inherit the molecular machinery to induce and undergo cellular apoptosis, and the frequency of cytokine expression suggests that the TRAIL/DR4/DR5 axis is an important molecular mediator of apoptosis induction in disk tissue.

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