BACKGROUND: In previous studies we found evidence favouring that human Achilles tendon cells (tenocytes) are capable of producing the neuropeptide substance P (SP). Furthermore, the preferred receptor for SP (the neurokinin-1 receptor, NK-1 R) was widely expressed throughout the tendon, especially in patients suffering from chronic tendon pain (tendinopathy) with tissue changes (tendinosis) including hypercellularity and vascular proliferation. Considering known effects of SP, one might ask whether SP contributes to tendon cell proliferation and neovascularisation in tendinosis. We have an established animal (rabbit) model of Achilles tendinopathy based on overuse in the form of repetitive exercise. Recent studies with this model have shown that tendinosis-like changes are present after 3 weeks of exercise, but not after only 1 week. The current study aimed to test whether the development of tendinosis-like changes would be accelerated during a 1 week course of exercise with repetitive local administration of SP.
MATERIAL AND METHODS: Four groups of animals (5-6 New Zealand white rabbits per group) were used. Three groups were subjected to the previously established protocol of Achilles tendon overuse for 1 week. One of these groups was given repetitive SP injections in the paratendinous tissue of the Achilles tendon, whereas one group (‘NaCl controls’) was given an equivalent schedule of saline injections. Two additional control groups existed: One in which the animals were neither subjected to the overuse protocol nor to any injections (‘untrained controls’), and one in which the animals trained for 1 week but were not given any injections (‘1 week controls’). Tenocyte number, vascular density, and the possible occurrence of paratendinous inflammation were evaluated. Immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridisation to detect NK-1 R were also conducted.
RESULTS: There was a significant increase in tenocyte number in the SP-injected group compared to both untrained controls and 1 week controls. However, the same phenomenon was noticed for NaCl controls, i.e. tenocyte number was significantly increased in response to NaCl injections compared to untrained controls. There was an increase in the number of tendon blood vessels in the SP-injected group as compared to untrained controls, and this increase in vascularity was not seen for the NaCl controls or the 1 week controls. Paratendinous inflammation, as evidenced by invasion of inflammatory cells in the paratenon, was clearly more pronounced in the SP-injected group than in the NaCl controls. NK-1 R was detected in blood vessel walls, on nerves, on inflammatory cells, and on tenocytes.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS: The observations suggest that SP induces tenocyte proliferation and angiogenesis in the rabbit Achilles tendon, thus supporting a potential role of this neuropeptide in the processes that occur in tendinosis. The study corroborates findings on the human Achilles tendon in that NK-1 R was expressed on tenocytes and tendon blood vessel walls, thereby providing a potential anatomic basis for the observed effects of SP on the development of tendinosis. The hypercellularity observed in response to NaCl injections might be due increased tissue pressure or to stimulation of endogenous SPproduction, a phenomenon not unheard of. The angiogenic effect of SP injections, on the other hand, appeared to be more specifically related to an induction of inflammation in the paratendon.
Tendinopathy; Neuropeptides; Neurokinin-1 Receptor; Animal model; Overuse injuries