Cross-linked hyaluronic acid hydrogel (cHA gel) and dexamethasone (Dex) have been used to treat knee osteoarthritis (OA) in clinical practice owing to their chondroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects, respectively. The aim of the present study was to compare the treatment effects of the cHA gel pre-mixed with/without Dex in a surgery-induced osteoarthritis model in rats. Anterior cruciate ligament transection (ACLT) surgery was performed on the right knee of rats to induce OA. Male 2-month-old Sprague-Dawley rats were randomly divided into five groups (n
= 10/per group): (1) ACLT + saline; (2) ACLT + cHA gel; (3) ACLT + cHA-Dex (0.2 mg/mL) gel; (4) ACLT + cHA-Dex (0.5 mg/mL) gel; (5) Sham + saline. Intra-joint injections were performed four weeks after ACLT in the right knee. All animals were euthanized at 12 weeks post-surgery. Cartilage damage and changes in the synovial membrane were assessed by micro X-ray, Indian ink articular surface staining, Safranin-O/Fast Green staining, immunohistochemistry, hematoxylin and eosin staining of the synovial membrane, and quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction for changes in gene expression. Micro X-ray revealed that the knee joint treated with the cHA-Dex gel was wider than those treated with cHA gel alone or saline. The cHA-Dex gel group had less Indian ink staining (indicator of cartilage fibrillation) than the cHA gel or saline injection groups. Safranin-O/Fast Green staining indicated that increased proteoglycan staining and less cartilage damage were found in the cHA-Dex gel group compared with the cHA gel or saline injection groups. Quantification of histology findings from saline, cHA gel, cHA-Dex (0.2 mg/mL) gel, cHA-Dex (0.5 mg/mL) gel, and sham groups were 5.84 ± 0.29, 4.50 ± 0.87, 3.00 ± 1.00, 2.00 ± 0.48, and 0.30 ± 0.58 (p
< 0.05), respectively. A strong staining of type II collagen was found in both the cHA-Dex gel groups compared with saline group or cHA alone group. Similar result was found for the mRNA level of aggrecan and opposite result for type X collagen. Hematoxylin and eosin staining in the synovial membrane showed less synovial lining cell layers and reduced inflammatory cell infiltration in cHA-Dex gel-treated animals compared with saline or cHA only groups. Altogether, cHA-Dex gel has better chondroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects in rat surgery-induced osteoarthritis than cHA alone.
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