Joint stiffness due to fibrosis/capsule contracture is a seriously disabling complication of articular injury that surgical interventions often fail to completely resolve. Fibrosis/contracture is associated with the abnormal persistence of myofibroblasts, which over-produce and contract collagen matrices. We hypothesized that intra-articular therapy with drugs targeting myofibroblast survival (sulfasalazine), or collagen production (β-aminopropionitrile and cis-hydroxyproline), would reduce joint stiffness in a rabbit model of fibrosis/contracture.
Drugs were encapsulated in poly[lactic-co-glycolic] acid pellets and implanted in joints after fibrosis/contracture induction. Capsule α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) expression and intimal thickness were evaluated by immunohistochemistry and histomorphometry, respectively. Joint stiffness was quantified by flexion-extension testing. Drawer tests were employed to determine if the drugs induced cruciate ligament laxity.
Joint capsule fibroblasts were tested in vitro for contractile activity and α-SMA expression. Stiffness in immobilized joints treated with blank pellets (control) was significantly higher than in non-immobilized, untreated joints (normal) (p = 0.0008), and higher than in immobilized joints treated with sulfasalazine (p = 0.0065). None of the drugs caused significant cruciate ligament laxity. Intimal thickness was significantly lower than control in the normal and sulfasalazine-treated groups (p = 0.010 and 0.025, respectively). Contractile activity in the cells from controls was significantly increased versus normal (p = 0.001). Sulfasalazine and β-aminopropionitrile significantly inhibited this effect (p = 0.005 and 0.0006, respectively). α-SMA expression was significantly higher in control versus normal (p = 0.0021) and versus sulfasalazine (p = 0.0007). These findings support the conclusion that sulfasalazine reduced stiffness by clearing myofibroblasts from fibrotic joints.
Statement of clinical significance: The results provide proof-of-concept that established joint stiffness can be resolved non-surgically.