Osteoclasts have been strongly implicated in osteoarthritic cartilage degradation, at least indirectly via bone resorption, and have been shown to degrade cartilage in vitro. The osteoclast resorption processes required to degrade subchondral bone and cartilage-the remodeling of which is important in the osteoarthritic disease process-have not been previously described, although cathepsin K has been indicated to participate. In this study we profile osteoclast-mediated degradation of bovine knee joint compartments in a novel in vitro model using biomarkers of extracellular matrix (ECM) degradation to assess the potential of osteoclast-derived resorption processes to degrade different knee joint compartments.

Mature human osteoclasts were cultured on ECMs isolated from bovine knees-articular cartilage, cortical bone, and osteochondral junction ECM (a subchondral bone-calcified cartilage mixture)-in the presence of inhibitors: the cystein protease inhibitor E-64, the matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) inhibitor GM6001, or the vacuolar-type H+-ATPase (V-ATPase) inhibitor diphyllin. Biomarkers of bone (calcium and C-terminal type I collagen (CTX-I)) and cartilage (C2M) degradation were measured in the culture supernatants. Cultures without osteoclasts were used as background samples. Background-subtracted biomarker levels were normalized to the vehicle condition and were analyzed using analysis of variance with Tukey or Dunnett's T3 post hoc test, as applicable.

Osteochondral CTX-I release was inhibited by E-64 (19% of vehicle, p = 0.0008), GM6001 (51% of vehicle, p = 0.013), and E-64/GM6001 combined (4% of vehicle, p = 0.0007)-similarly to bone CTX-I release. Diphyllin also inhibited osteochondral CTX-I release (48% of vehicle, p = 0.014), albeit less than on bone (4% of vehicle, p < 0.0001). Osteochondral C2M release was only inhibited by E-64 (49% of vehicle, p = 0.07) and GM6001 (14% of vehicle, p = 0.006), with complete abrogation when combined (0% of vehicle, p = 0.004). Cartilage C2M release was non-significantly inhibited by E-64 (69% of vehicle, p = 0.98) and was completely abrogated by GM6001 (0% of vehicle, p = 0.16).

Our study supports that osteoclasts can resorb non-calcified and calcified cartilage independently of acidification. We demonstrated both MMP-mediated and cysteine protease-mediated resorption of calcified cartilage. Osteoclast functionality was highly dependent on the resorbed substrate, as different ECMs required different osteoclast processes for degradation. Our novel culture system has potential to facilitate drug and biomarker development aimed at rheumatic diseases, e.g. osteoarthritis, where pathological osteoclast processes in specific joint compartments may contribute to the disease process.