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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

miR-146a, an IL-1β responsive miRNA, induces vascular endothelial growth factor and chondrocyte apoptosis by targeting Smad4

Jing Li1, Jingang Huang1, Liming Dai1, Degang Yu2, Qian Chen3, Xiaoling Zhang12* and Kerong Dai12*

Author affiliations

1 The Key Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology, Institute of Health Sciences, Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences & Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, China, 200025

2 Shanghai Key Laboratory of Orthopaedic Implant, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Shanghai Ninth People's Hospital, Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, China, 200011

3 Cell and Molecular Biology Laboratory, Department of Orthopaedics, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University/Rhode Island Hospital, Providence, USA, RI 02903

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Citation and License

Arthritis Research & Therapy 2012, 14:R75  doi:10.1186/ar3798

Published: 16 April 2012



miR-146a is one of the first identified miRNAs expressed differentially in osteoarthritis (OA) cartilage. However, the role it plays in OA pathogenesis is not clear. The aim of this study is to identify a molecular target of miR-146a, thereby elucidating its function in chondrocytes during OA pathogenesis.


Primary chondrocytes from Sprague-Dawley rats were treated with IL-1β before the expression levels of miR-146a, Smad4 and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) were quantified by real-time PCR and/or western blotting. The effect of miR-146a on cellular response to transforming growth factor (TGF)-β1 was quantified by a luciferase reporter harboring TGF-β1 responsive elements and by extracellular signal-regulated kinase assay. The effect of miR-146a on apoptosis was quantified by the TUNEL assay. OA pathogenesis was surgically induced with joint instability in rats, evaluated by histopathological analysis with safranin O staining, and the expression levels of miR-146a, Smad4, and VEGF were quantified using real-time PCR and/or immunohistochemistry.


IL-1β treatment of chondrocytes increased the expression levels of miR-146a and VEGF and decreased the levels of Smad4 in a time-dependent manner. miR-146a upregulated VEGF expression and downregulated Smad4 expression in chondrocytes, while a miR-146a inhibitor acted in a converse manner. Smad4, a common mediator of the TGF-β pathway, is identified as a direct target of miR-146a by harboring a miR-146a binding sequence in the 3'-UTR region of its mRNA. Mutation of the binding sequence significantly relieved the inhibition of the Smad4 reporter activity by miR-146a. Furthermore, miR-146a upregulation of VEGF is mediated by Smad4. Expression of miR-146a led to a reduction of cellular responsiveness to TGF-β and an increase of apoptosis rate in chondrocytes. In vivo, cartilage from surgically induced OA rats displayed higher levels of miR-146a and VEGF compared with the sham group. In contrast, Smad4 expression level was lower in the OA group than the sham group.


IL-1β responsive miR-146a is overexpressed in an experimentally induced OA model, accompanied by upregulation of VEGF and downregulation of Smad4 in vivo. miR-146a may contribute to OA pathogenesis by increasing VEGF levels and by impairing the TGF-β signaling pathway through targeted inhibition of Smad4 in cartilage.