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OBJECTIVE--To localise the cysteine endopeptidase cathepsin B in chondrocytes and cartilage from normal and osteoarthritic (OA) human femoral heads in order to provide qualitative information on its cellular expression and distribution at possible sites of action. METHODS--OA articular cartilage was obtained at surgery for total hip replacement; control cartilage was obtained at postmortem. Chondrocytes were isolated by sequential enzymatic digestion and cathepsin B analysed by immunocytochemistry and activity staining with a fluorogenic substrate. Lysosomes were visualised by fluorescence microscopy after staining of living cells with acridine orange. Using a histochemical reaction, enzyme activity was measured in cryosections of full thickness cartilage. RESULTS--Chondrocytes from normal cartilage contained very few lysosomes and only a minor cell population was cathepsin B positive. A high proportion of chondrocytes from active OA cartilage contained a large number of lysosomes and an excess of cathepsin B in intracellular organelles; the enzyme was stored in an active form. In this respect, OA chondrocytes closely resembled normal cells that had been phenotypically modulated by serial subcultures. No cathepsin B activity could be detected by histochemistry in either chondrocytes or matrix of normal cartilage. While apparently intact and severely degraded OA cartilage was also cathepsin B negative, tissue at sites of active destruction and, particularly, at repair sites was highly positive. CONCLUSION--The presence and the particular distribution of active cathepsin B in OA cartilage at 'more involved' sites suggest a pathological role for this enzyme in sustaining and perpetuating cartilage degradation. While other stimuli may also be responsible for cathepsin B expression in OA chondrocytes, the similarity with artificially modulated cells indicates fibroblastic metaplasia as a plausible mechanism.