BackgroundThe expression of the receptor activator of nuclear factor kappa B (RANK) /RANK ligand (RANKL) /osteoprotegerin (OPG) system and its association with the progression of intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration has recently been reported in a human IVD. However, the effect of the RANK/RANKL/OPG system on the matrix metabolism of human IVD cells, especially on the expression of catabolic factors relevant to IVD degeneration, remains unknown. The purpose of this study was to examine the expression of the RANK/RANKL/OPG system, and then to evaluate the effect of this system on the expression of catabolic factors by human IVD cells.MethodsAnnulus fibrosus (AF) and nucleus pulposus (NP) cells isolated by sequential enzyme digestion from human IVD tissues obtained during spine surgeries were monolayer cultured. The expression of the RANK/RANKL/OPG system was determined using immunohistochemical methods and real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR). To evaluate the influence of interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β) stimulation on the mRNA expression of RANK, RANKL, and OPG, recombinant human IL-1β (rhIL-1β) was administered in the culture media of IVD cells. To examine the influence of RANKL signaling on the expression of matrix metalloprotease-3 (MMP-3), MMP-13, and IL-1β, the cells were cultured with exogenous recombinant human RANKL (rhRANKL), recombinant human OPG (rhOPG) or anti-human RANKL mouse monoclonal antibody (ahRANKL-mAB) with or without rhIL-1β.ResultsImmunoreactivity to RANK/RANKL/OPG and the mRNA expression of the three genes were obviously identified in both AF and NP cells. rhIL-1β stimulation significantly upregulated the mRNA expression level of RANK/RANKL/OPG. The mRNA expression of catabolic factors was significantly upregulated by stimulation of rhRANKL in the presence of rhIL-1β. On the other hand, the administration of either rhOPG or ahRANKL-mAB significantly suppressed the mRNA expression of catabolic factors that had been upregulated by rhIL-1β stimulation. The suppressive effect of ahRANKL-mAB against rhIL-1β stimulation was also confirmed by the protein expression of MMP-3.ConclusionsThe present study showed that the RANK/RANKL/OPG system may be involved in the progression of IVD degeneration. This study also suggested the potential use of anti-RANKL monoclonal antibody and OPG as therapeutic agents to suppress the progression of IVD degeneration.