Introduction: Oxidative stress has been reported to be involved in numerous human diseases, including musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis. However, the interaction between intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration and oxidative stress is not well understood. The purpose of the present study was to elucidate the contribution of oxidative stress to IVD degeneration and the efficacy of antioxidant treatment for degenerative discs. Methods: The expression level of an oxidative stress marker, nitrotyrosine, was assessed by immunohistochemistry and Western blotting. For evaluating intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels and oxidative stress in rat annulus fibrosus (AF) cells, flow cytometry and luciferase assay with an OKD48 construct were performed. The grade of IVD degeneration was assessed by magnetic resonance imaging and histological analysis. Results: A high frequency of nitrotyrosine-positive cells was observed in rat and human degenerative discs. mRNA expression of catabolic factors such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), matrix metalloprotease-3 (MMP-3), and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) was significantly induced by treatment with H2O2 or buthionine sulfoximine, whereas that of aggrecan, an important chondrogenic proteoglycan, was reduced in a dose-dependent manner. Treatment with mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) inhibitors blocked the inductive effect of excessive ROS on COX-2 mRNA expression. Western blotting confirmed the phosphorylation of MAPKs in H2O2 and BSO-treated AF cells. Conversely, we showed that TNF-aα induced oxidative stress with increased intracellular ROS levels in AF cells. Treatment with the antioxidant N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) abrogated the catabolic effect of excessive ROS and TNF-alpha in vitro. Finally, we showed that oral administration of NAC prevented IVD degeneration in rat degenerative model. Conclusions: A positive feedback loop was formed between excessive ROS and TNF-alpha in AF cells. Thus, oxidative stress contributes to the progression of IVD degeneration and NAC can be a therapeutic option for IVD degeneration.
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