Assessment of Articular Cartilage and Subchondral Bone: Subtle and Progressive Changes in Experimental Osteoarthritis Using 50 MHz Echography In Vitro

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The main objectives of this work were to demonstrate the potential of 50 MHz echography for assessing initial and progressive morphological and structural changes of articular cartilage and bone developed in an experimental model of osteoarthritis (OA). Degenerative lesions were induced in rat knees by the unilateral intra-articular injection of a 3 mg dose of mono-iodo-acetic acid. To assess the lesion progression, the animals (n = 30) were sacrificed at different time intervals up to 8 weeks after the injection. Three-dimensional echographic data were acquired in vitro on patellar cartilage and bone at various stages of the remodeling process using a scanning ultrasound microscope. Changes involving the OA cartilage characteristics are discussed relative to those of the contralateral control joint which received a placebo. Images of control cartilage showed a smooth hyperechoic articular surface and an echoic matrix. The cartilage thickness was 266 ± 44 μm (mean ± SD) in the central region of the tissue. The precision of ultrasonic thickness measurements was better than 1.3%. First changes in cartilage internal structure and subchondral bone appeared on ultrasound images 3 days after the injection and were even more evident by day 7. They resulted in a slight thinning of the cartilage, a 30% increase of its internal structure echogenicity, and the appearance of echoic zones in subchondral bone. Histologic findings confirmed chondrocyte depletion and degeneration, decrease of matrix proteoglycans, and fibrovascular connective tissue proliferation at the subchondral plate. Progressive and severe lesions at both bone and cartilage surface and internal structure were assessed and correlated to histologic features. These results show that high resolution echography is sensitive to subtle and progressive osteochondral remodeling. This technique has the potential to be used for intra-articular quantitative imaging and assessment of early changes in bone and cartilage structure associated with natural human disease.

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