Nucleus pulposus (NP) cells of the intervertebral disc are essential for synthesizing extracellular matrix that contributes to disc health and mechanical function. NP cells have a unique morphology and molecular expression pattern derived from their notochordal origin, and reside in N-cadherin (CDH2) positive cell clusters in vivo. With disc degeneration, NP cells undergo morphologic and phenotypic changes including loss of CDH2 expression and ability to form cell clusters. Here, we investigate the role of CDH2 positive cell clusters in preserving healthy, biosynthetically active NP cells. Using a laminin-functionalized hydrogel system designed to mimic features of the native NP microenvironment, we demonstrate NP cell phenotype and morphology is preserved only when NP cells form CDH2 positive cell clusters. Knockdown (CRISPRi) or blocking CDH2 expression in vitro and in vivo results in loss of a healthy NP cell. Findings also reveal that degenerate human NP cells that are CDH2 negative can be promoted to re-express CDH2 and healthy, juvenile NP matrix synthesis patterns by promoting cell clustering for controlled microenvironment conditions. This work also identifies CDH2 interactions with β-catenin-regulated signaling as one mechanism by which CDH2-mediated cell interactions can control NP cell phenotype and biosynthesis towards maintenance of healthy intervertebral disc tissues.

Original languageEnglish
Article number28038
JournalScientific reports
StatePublished - Jun 13 2016


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