OBJECTIVE: Although most studies have focused on the cholesterol-lowering activity of stigmasterol, other bioactivities have been ascribed to this plant sterol compound, one of which is a potential anti-inflammatory effect. To investigate the effects of stigmasterol, a plant sterol, on the inflammatory mediators and metalloproteinases produced by chondrocytes. METHOD: We used a model of newborn mouse chondrocytes and human osteoarthritis (OA) chondrocytes in primary culture stimulated with or without IL-1beta (10 ng/ml), for 18 h. Cells were pre-incubated for 48 h with stigmasterol (20 microg/ml) compared to untreated cells. We initially investigated the presence of stigmasterol in chondrocyte, compared to other phytosterols. We then assessed the role of stigmasterol on the expression of various genes involved in inflammation (IL-6) and cartilage turn-over (MMP-3, -13, ADAMTS-4, -5, type II collagen, aggrecan) by quantitative Reverse Transcriptase-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR). Additional experiments were carried out to monitor the production of MMP-3 and prostaglandin E2 (PGE(2)) by specific immuno-enzymatic assays. We eventually looked at the role of stigmasterol on NF-kappaB activation by western blot, using an anti-IkappaBalpha antibody. RESULTS: After 18 h of IL-1beta treatment, MMP-3, MMP-13, ADAMTS-4, but not ADAMTS-5 RNA expression were elevated, as well as MMP-3 and PGE(2) protein levels in mouse and human chondrocytes. Type II collagen and aggrecan mRNA levels were significatively reduced. Pre-incubation of stigmasterol to IL-1beta-treated cells significantly decreased these effects described above (significant reduction of MMP-3 mRNA in human and mouse, MMP-3 protein in mouse, MMP-13 mRNA in mouse and human, ADAMTS-4 mRNA in human, PGE(2) protein in human and mouse) Finally, stigmasterol was capable of counteracting the IL-1beta-induced NF-kappaB pathway. CONCLUSION: This study shows that stigmasterol inhibits several pro-inflammatory and matrix degradation mediators typically involved in OA-induced cartilage degradation, at least in part through the inhibition of the NF-kappaB pathway. These promising results justify further ex vivo and in vivo investigations with stigmasterol.