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Distraction osteogenesis is a recently advanced principle of bone lengthening in which a bone separated by osteotomy is subjected to slow progressive distraction using an external fixation device. Appropriate mechanical tension-stress is believed not to break the callus but rather to stimulate osteogenesis. To study the molecular features of this process, the expression and localization of the mRNAs encoding osteopontin (OPN), osteocalcin (OC), matrix Gla protein (MGP), osteonectin (ON), and collagen type I and II during distraction osteogenesis were examined by in situ hybridization and Northern blot analysis. The process can be divided into three distinct phases: the lag phase for 7 days between osteotomy and the beginning of distraction, the distraction phase for 21 days, and the consolidation phase for several weeks. The histologic and molecular events taking place during the lag phase were similar to those observed in fracture healing. The osteotomy site was surrounded by external callus consisting of hyaline cartilage. As distraction started at the rate of 0.25 mm/12 h, the cartilaginous callus was elongated, deformed, and eventually separated into proximal and distal segments. The chondrocytes were stretched along the tension vector and became fibroblast-like in shape. Although morphologically these cells were distinguishable from osteogenic cells, they expressed OPN, OC, and alkaline phosphatase mRNAs. As distraction advanced, the cartilaginous callus was progressively replaced by bony callus by endochondral ossification and thereafter new bone was formed directly by intramembranous ossification. OPN mRNA was detected in preosteoblasts and osteoblasts at the boundary between fibrous tissue and new bone. ON, MGP, and OC mRNAs appeared early in the differentiation stage. The variety of cell types expressing mRNA encoding bone matrix proteins in distraction osteogenesis was much greater than that detected in the embryonic bone formation and fracture healing process. Moreover, the levels of OPN, ON, MGP, and OC mRNA expression markedly increased during the distraction phase. These results suggested that mechanical tension-stress modulates cell shape and phenotype, and stimulates the expression of the mRNA for bone matrix proteins.