Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic auto-immune disease with extensive articular cartilage destruction. Aggrecan depletion, mediated by aggrecanases is one of the first signs of early cartilage erosion. We investigated, whether measurement of aggrecan and fragments thereof in serum, could be used as biomarkers for joint-disease in RA patients and furthermore characterized the fragments found in the circulation.
The study consisted of 38 patients, 12 males (62.2 ± 16.0 years) and 26 females (59.8 ± 20.7 years) diagnosed with RA: 41.5 ± 27.5 mm/h erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), 38.4 ± 34.7 mg/ml C-reactive protein (CRP) and 4.8 ± 1.7 disease activity score (DAS) and 108 healthy age-matched controls. Aggrecan levels were measured using two immunoassays, i.e. the 374ARGSVI-G2 sandwich ELISA measuring aggrecanase-mediated aggrecan degradation and the G1/G2 sandwich assay, detecting aggrecan molecules containing G1 and/or G2 (total aggrecan) We further characterized serum samples by western blots, by using monoclonal antibodies F-78, binding to G1 and G2, or by BC-3, detecting the aggrecanase-generated N-terminal 374ARGSVI neo-epitope.
Total aggrecan levels in RA patients were significantly decreased from 824.8 ± 31 ng/ml in healthy controls to 570.5 ± 30 ng/ml (31% decrease, P < 0.0001), as measured by the G1/G2 ELISA. Western blot analysis with F-78 showed one strong band at 10 kDa, and weaker bands at 25 and 45 kDa in both healthy controls and RA patients. In contrast, staining for aggrecanase-activity revealed only one strong band in RA patients of 45 kDa.
This is the first study, which characterizes different aggrecan fragments in human serum. The data strongly suggests that total aggrecan levels, i.e. aggrecan molecules containing G1 and/or G2 are lower in RA patients, and that RA patients have at least one specific subpopulation of aggrecan fragments, namely aggrecanse generated 374ARGSVI fragments. Further clinical studies are needed to investigate the potential of G1/G2 as a structure-related biochemical marker in destructive joint-diseases.