3D assessment of intervertebral disc degeneration in zebrafish identifies changes in bone density that prime disc disease

Erika Kague*, Francesco Turci, Elis Newman, Yushi Yang, Kate Robson Brown, Mona S. Aglan, Ghada A. Otaify, Samia A. Temtamy, Victor L. Ruiz-Perez, Stephen Cross, C. Patrick Royall, P. Eckhard Witten, Chrissy L. Hammond*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)


Back pain is a common condition with a high social impact and represents a global health burden. Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) is one of the major causes of back pain; no therapeutics are currently available to reverse this disease. The impact of bone mineral density (BMD) on IVDD has been controversial, with some studies suggesting osteoporosis as causative for IVDD and others suggesting it as protective for IVDD. Functional studies to evaluate the influence of genetic components of BMD in IVDD could highlight opportunities for drug development and repurposing. By taking a holistic 3D approach, we established an aging zebrafish model for spontaneous IVDD. Increased BMD in aging, detected by automated computational analysis, is caused by bone deformities at the endplates. However, aged zebrafish spines showed changes in bone morphology, microstructure, mineral heterogeneity, and increased fragility that resembled osteoporosis. Elements of the discs recapitulated IVDD symptoms found in humans: the intervertebral ligament (equivalent to the annulus fibrosus) showed disorganized collagen fibers and herniation, while the disc center (nucleus pulposus equivalent) showed dehydration and cellular abnormalities. We manipulated BMD in young zebrafish by mutating sp7 and cathepsin K, leading to low and high BMD, respectively. Remarkably, we detected IVDD in both groups, demonstrating that low BMD does not protect against IVDD, and we found a strong correlation between high BMD and IVDD. Deep learning was applied to high-resolution synchrotron µCT image data to analyze osteocyte 3D lacunar distribution and morphology, revealing a role of sp7 in controlling the osteocyte lacunar 3D profile. Our findings suggest potential avenues through which bone quality can be targeted to identify beneficial therapeutics for IVDD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number39
JournalBone Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Histology
  • Physiology

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