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A comprehensive immunohistochemical study of matrix metalloproteinase activity in discs from patients with different disc diseases.—To identify individual matrix metalloproteinase enzymes that could contribute to the degeneration of the matrix of the intervertebral disc, to identify the cells that produce matrix metalloproteinases (for example, the endogenous disc cells or invading cells associated with vascularisation), and to determine if “aggrecanase” contributes to degradation of proteoglycans in disc disorders.Matrix disorganization and loss of substance are the most common findings in degenerate discs, and proteinase enzyme activity is one means of causing these changes.Forty-nine discs from 46 patients with degenerative disc disease, posterior anular tears, spondylolisthesis, or disc herniation were studied immunohistochemically to determine the presence of matrix metalloproteinases 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9 and 13, tissue metalloproteinases 1 and 2, and proteoglycan degradation products generated by either matrix metalloproteinases or aggrecanase activity. In addition, in situ zymography was used to confirm matrix metalloproteinase activity.The most extensive staining was seen for matrix metalloproteinases 1, 2, 3, and 9, with 91%, 71%, 65%, and 72% of samples having some immunopositivity for the respective antibodies. In contrast, staining for matrix metalloproteinases 7 and 8 was much less (38% for both). Tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases 1 and 2 were expressed in 34% and 79% of specimens, respectively. Matrix metalloproteinases were found particularly in cell clusters and blood vessels of degenerate discs, with staining correlating positively with macroscopic degenerative grade. For all of the enzymes, there was most staining in the herniation specimens and least in the autopsy samples. The opposite was true of staining for the matrix metalloproteinases inhibitor, tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases 2, with most found in the autopsy specimens. Enzyme activity was confirmed by in situ zymography and staining for matrix metalloproteinase degradation products of proteoglycans. In addition, there was staining with antibodies demonstrating aggrecanase degradation products.Matrix metalloproteinase activity is more prevalent in herniated discs than in other disc disorders studied, although matrix metalloproteinases may have been more common earlier in the disease progression. Matrix metalloproteinases can be produced by invading blood vessels and associated cells, as well as by indigenous disc cells. Aggrecanase activity, although present in some samples, was not as obvious as that of matrix metalloproteinases. In addition to altered matrix metalloproteinase production, there appears to be a change in the balance between enzymes and endogenous inhibitors, tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases. This study highlights specific matrix metalloproteinases that might be most efficient to target in developing therapeutics for minimizing degradation of the extracellular matrix of the disc.