To clarify phenotypic alterations of intervertebral disc cells during the repair process, we cloned partial type-II collagen cDNA from rabbits and analyzed the level of expression of type-II collagen mRNA in disc degeneration. An animal model was created by surgical denucleation of rabbit intervertebral discs through an extraperitoneal approach. Eight animals each from an experimental and a control group were killed at 2, 4, 8, or 16 weeks postoperatively, and the disc samples were used for this study. Round chondrocyte-like cells that filled the herniated space showed intense signal of type-II collagen mRNA and significant pericellular immunostaining of type- II collagen but no clear staining of type-I collagen. Northern blot analysis revealed that the expression of type-II collagen mRNA of the repair disc cells was transiently increased at 4 weeks postoperatively. The cells were able to change their morphology in response to mechanical stimulation by surgical denucleation and to induce a significant increase in the gene expression of type-II collagen at an early phase of disc degeneration. The present results indicate the transient enhancement of repair activity in the degenerative process of injured fibrocartilage.
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