Degenerative joint diseases (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis) represent a major cause of disability and early retirements in the industrialised countries. These diseases affect primarily the cartilage of the larger joints and destroy its macromolecular constituents. Cartilage covers the ends of the bones acting as a weight bearing, low friction, wear resistant tissue. It is known that the composition of cartilage is crucial for its function and forming the complex matrix network: This matrix consists primarily of collagen and acidic polysaccharides (the glycosaminoglycans) that form in combination with proteins the so-called proteoglycans. This review is dedicated to the molecular organization of cartilage and its components in health and disease with the emphasis on the interactions between the individual polymeric components. Therefore, some physico-chemical methods used in cartilage research will be also discussed. The focus will be on methods of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) that allow a clear differentiation and characterization of the components of cartilage. It is one aim to prove that besides classical methods of biochemistry, biophysical techniques are also useful to study cartilage structure and function. Both, basic sciences and medical applications will be considered. Finally, future prospects will be provided how modern NMR techniques may help to assess the quality of bioengineered cartilage.
Keywords: Glycosaminoglycan, Hyaluronan, Disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, Atomic Force Microscopy, Reactive Oxygen Species, NSAIDS
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