A hallmark of osteoarthritis (OA) is degradation of articular cartilage proteoglycans. In isolated human OA chondrocytes, the anti-inflammatory cytokine Interleukin-37 (IL-37) lowers the expression of the proteolytic MMP and ADAMTS enzymes, which mediate this degradation. Therefore, we investigated if IL-37 protects against proteoglycan loss in freshly obtained human OA explants.

Human OA cartilage explants were incubated with IL-37. Release of sulphated proteoglycans (sGAGs) was measured with the dimethylmethylene-blue assay. Production and degradation of newly synthesized proteoglycans was measured using 35S-sulphate. Proteoglycan and proteolytic enzyme expression were analyzed by qPCR and Western Blot. Proteolytic activity was determined by measuring MMP- and ADAMTS-generated aggrecan neo-epitopes with ELISA and by using MMP-3-, MMP-13- or ADAMTS-5-inhibitors.

Over time, a linear release of sGAGs from OA cartilage was measured. IL-37 reduced this release by 87 μg/ml (24%) 95%CI [21.04-141.4]. IL-37 did not affect 35S-sulphate incorporation or proteoglycan gene expression. In contrast, IL-37 reduced loss of 35S-sulphate labeled GAGs and reduced MMP-3 protein expression, indicating that IL-37 inhibits proteoglycan degradation. Remarkably, we observed two groups of patients; one group in which MMP-3-inhibition lowered sGAG release, and one group in which ADAMTS5-inhibition had this effect. Remarkably, IL-37 was only functional in the group of patients that responded to MMP-3-inhibition.

We identified a relationship between IL-37 and reduced sGAG loss in OA cartilage. Most likely, this effect is mediated by inhibition of MMP-3 expression. These results suggest that IL-37 could be applied as therapy in a subgroup of OA patients, in which cartilage degradation is mediated by MMP-3.