In the transition from proliferating to hypertrophic cell zones in the growth plate, there is an increase in chondrocyte volume and a corresponding decrease in collagen content to accommodate the enlarging cells. It is postulated that collagenase accounts for this collagen loss. To test this hypothesis, tibial growth plates were obtained from normal rats, rachitic rats deficient in vitamin D and phosphate, and rats after 48 and 72 h of healing from rickets. Collagenase was quantitated by a pellet assay based on the release of solubilized collagen from the endogenous insoluble collagen in the tissue homogenates. A fourfold greater collagen release and a concomitant sixfold greater hypertrophic cell volume were measured in rachitic growth plates compared with normal age-matched controls. During healing of rickets, collagenase activity and hypertrophic cell volume returned almost to control levels. Rachitic growth plates were dissected into the juxtaepiphyseal 1/3 and the juxtametaphyseal 2/3. The latter portion contained >95% of the hypertrophic cells and 86% of the collagenase. The collagen-degrading activity was extracted from this region and was shown to be a true collagenase by its production of typical A fragments of tropocollagen produced by collagenase action. The enzyme was activated by aminophenylmercuric acetate and trypsin and was inhibited by EDTA, 1,10-phenanthroline, and a tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases from human articular cartilage. Inhibitors of aspartic, cysteine, and serine proteases had no effect. Micropuncture fluids aspirated from rachitic cartilage contained latent collagenase activity, indicating an extracellular localization. Negative tests for hemoglobin in the rachitic cartilage samples indicated that there was no contamination by capillaries and that this was not a source of collagenase. It is concluded that extracellular collagenase accounts for the loss of cartilage matrix in the hypertrophic zone, and that this process may be distinct from that of capillary invasion.
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