Role of autophagy in intervertebral disc and cartilage function: implications in health and disease

Vedavathi Madhu, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
Anyonya R. Guntur, Center for Molecular Medicine, Maine Medical Center Research Institute, Scarborough, ME, USA; Tufts University School of Medicine, Tufts University, Boston, MA USA; Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Engineering, University of Maine, Orono, ME USA.
Makarand V. Risbud, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, USA; Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine Graduate Program, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, USA. Electronic address:


The intervertebral disc and cartilage are specialized, extracellular matrix-rich tissues critical for absorbing mechanical loads, providing flexibility to the joints, and longitudinal growth in the case of growth plate cartilage. Specialized niche conditions in these tissues, such as hypoxia, are critical in regulating cellular activities including autophagy, a lysosomal degradation pathway that promotes cell survival. Mounting evidence suggests that dysregulation of autophagic pathways underscores many skeletal pathologies affecting the spinal column, articular and growth plate cartilages. Many lysosomal storage disorders characterized by the accumulation of partially degraded glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) due to the lysosomal dysfunction thus affect skeletal tissues and result in altered ECM structure. Likewise, pathologies that arise from mutations in genes encoding ECM proteins and ECM processing, folding, and post-translational modifications, result in accumulation of misfolded proteins in the ER, ER stress and autophagy dysregulation. These conditions evidence reduced secretion of ECM proteins and/or increased secretion of mutant proteins, thereby impairing matrix quality and the integrity of affected skeletal tissues and causing a lack of growth and degeneration. In this review, we discuss the role of autophagy and mechanisms of its regulation in the intervertebral disc and cartilages, as well as how dysregulation of autophagic pathways affects these skeletal tissues.