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    This multi-length scale anatomical study explores the influence of mild cartilage structural degeneration on the tissue swelling response. While the swelling response of cartilage has been studied extensively, this is the first study to reveal and correlate tissue microstructure and ultrastructure, with the swelling induced cartilage tissue strains. Cartilage sample strips (n = 30) were obtained from the distal-lateral quadrant of thirty mildly degenerate bovine patellae and, following excision from the bone, the cartilage strips were allowed to swell freely for 2 h in solutions of physiological saline and distilled water successively. The swelling response of this group of samples were compared with that of healthy cartilage, with (n = 20) and without the surface layer (n = 20). The subsequent curling response of cartilage showed that in healthy tissue it was highly variable, and with the surface removed some samples curved in the opposite direction, while in the mildly degenerate tissue group, virtually all tissue strips curved in a consistent upward manner. A significant difference in strain was observed between healthy samples with surface layer removed and mildly degenerate samples, illustrating how excision of the surface zone from pristine cartilage is insufficient to model the swelling response of tissue which has undergone natural degenerative changes. On average, total tissue thickness increased from 940 µm (healthy) to 1079 µm (mildly degenerate), however, looking at the zonal strata, surface and transition zone thicknesses both decreased while deep zone thickness increased from healthy to mildly degenerate tissue. Morphologically, changes to the surface zone integrity were correlated with a diminished surface layer which, at the ultrastructural scale, correlated with a decreased fibrillar density. Similarly, fibrosity of the general matrix visible at the microscale was associated with a loss of later interconnectivity resulting in large, aggregated fibril bundles. The microstructural and ultrastructural investigation revealed that the key differences influencing the tissue swelling strain response was (1) the thickness and extent of disruption to the surface layer and (2) the amount of fibrillar network destructuring, highlighting the importance of the collagen and tissue matrix structure in restraining cartilage swelling. © 2021 Anatomical Society.


    Emma Te Tūmanako Brown, Joni M L J W Simons, Ashvin Thambyah. The ultrastructure of cartilage tissue and its swelling response in relation to matrix health. Journal of anatomy. 2022 Jan;240(1):107-119

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    PMID: 34333796

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