Shane A Lloyd, Alayna E Loiselle, Yue Zhang and Henry J Donahue
Background Connexin 43 (Cx43) is the predominant gap junction protein in bone. Mice with a bone-specific deletion of Cx43 (cKO) have an osteopenic cortical phenotype. In a recent study, we demonstrated that cKO mice are resistant to bone loss induced by hindlimb suspension (HLS), an animal model of skeletal unloading. This protective effect occurred primarily as a result of lower osteoclast-mediated bone resorption. Interestingly, we also documented a significant increase in cortical osteocyte apoptosis and reduced sclerostin production. In the present study, we investigated whether osteocytic osteolysis – bone resorption by osteocytes within lacunae – is induced by HLS and the potential effect of Cx43 deficiency on this process during unloading.
Methods 6-month-old male Cx43 cKO or wild-type (WT) mice were subjected to three weeks of HLS (Suspended) or normal loading conditions (Control) (n = 5/group). Lacunar morphology and tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase (TRACP) staining were assessed on sections of femur cortical bone. Experimental groups were compared via two-way ANOVA.
Results Empty lacunae were 26% larger in cKO-Control vs. WT-Control (p < 0.05), while there was no difference in the size of empty lacunae between Control and Suspended within WT or cKO (p > 0.05). Similarly, there was a trend (p = 0.06) for 11% larger lacunae containing viable osteocytes for cKO-Control vs. WT-Control, with no apparent effect of loading condition. There was no difference in the proportion of TRACP + cells between WT-Control and cKO-Control (p > 0.05); however, WT-Suspended mice had 246% more TRACP + osteocytes compared WT-Control mice (p < 0.05). There was no difference in TRACP staining between cKO-Control and cKO-Suspended (p > 0.05).
Conclusions Prior to undergoing apoptosis, osteocytes in cKO mice may be actively resorbing their respective lacunae via the process of osteocytic osteolysis. Interestingly, the proportion of TRACP + osteocytes increased dramatically following unloading of WT mice, an effect that was not observed in cKO mice subjected to HLS. The results of the present study provide initial evidence that osteocytic osteolysis is occurring in cortical bone in response to mechanical unloading. Furthermore, Cx43 deficiency appears to protect against osteocytic osteolysis in a manner similar to the inhibition of unloading-induced osteoclast activation that we have documented previously.