Background: Previous studies have identified lubricin (also known as superficial zone protein) as a lubricating glycoprotein present in several musculoskeletal tissues including articular cartilage, meniscus, and tendon. In this immunohistochemical study, we determined the presence and distribution of lubricin in the cells, extracellular matrix, and tissue surfaces of human nucleus pulposus and anulus fibrosus tissues.
Methods: Twenty-eight human intervertebral discs were resected at autopsy from fourteen cadavers. Disc specimens were fixed in formalin, processed, and paraffin-embedded prior to sectioning. Tissue sections were immunohistochemically stained for lubricin, the extent of extracellular matrix staining was evaluated semiquantitatively, and cellular staining was assessed quantitatively with use of a survey method.
Results: Lubricin staining was evident in the extracellular matrix and at select surfaces of the nucleus pulposus and anulus fibrosus tissues. The extent of lubricin staining of the extracellular matrix was contingent on the disc region (nucleus pulposus, inner anulus fibrosus, or outer anulus fibrosus), with the greatest extent of matrix staining found in the nucleus pulposus, but it was not contingent on the Thompson grade. A subset of disc cells within the nucleus, inner anulus, and outer anulus also stained positively for lubricin, suggesting intrinsic cell synthesis of the glycoprotein. The disc region significantly affected the percentage of lubricin-staining cells, with the greatest percentage of cells staining for lubricin (nearly 10%) found in the nucleus pulposus. The percentage of cells staining for lubricin correlated with the extent of extracellular matrix staining for lubricin.
Conclusions: The results of this study confirm the presence of lubricin in the human intervertebral disc and demonstrate a unique distribution compared with that in the goat. The presence of lubricin in asymptomatic discs provides a foundation for future research regarding the role of lubricin in pathological disc conditions.
Clinical Relevance: The presence and distribution of lubricin in the human intervertebral disc, notably at the tissue surfaces, suggest that it may play a role in the tribology of the disc in health and/or disease.