Open Access Open Badges Research article

Trauma induces apoptosis in human thoracolumbar intervertebral discs

Christoph-E Heyde*, Sven K Tschoeke, Markus Hellmuth, Arwed Hostmann, Wolfgang Ertel and Andreas Oberholzer

Author Affiliations

Department of Trauma and Reconstructive Surgery, Charité – University Medical School, Campus Benjamin Franklin, Hindenburgdamm 30, 12200 Berlin, Germany

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Clinical Pathology 2006, 6:5  doi:10.1186/1472-6890-6-5

Published: 23 May 2006



Vertebral fractures resulting from high energy trauma often comprise the risk of posttraumatic degenerative changes in the affected intervertebral discs (IVD). Particularly in conservatively treated patients, or in cases after implant removal of an exclusively posterior stabilization, consecutive disc degeneration and the associated functional losing of the spinal segment clearly represent detrimental treatment results. In this regard, apoptosis of IVD cells has been suggested to be involved in the critical changes of the extracellular matrix.


To investigate whether fractures of the vertebrae induce apoptosis in the affected IVD, disc tissue from patients (n = 17) undergoing open reduction and internal fixation of thoracolumbar spine fractures were analysed in regards to caspase activity, apoptosis-receptor expression levels and gene expression of apoptosis-regulating proteins such as Bax and Bcl-2. Healthy IVD tissue (n = 3) obtained from patients undergoing surgical resection of adjacent vertebrae were used as control samples.


In contrast to healthy control IVD tissues, samples from traumatic thoracolumbar IVD showed positive TUNEL staining and a significant increase of caspase-3/7 activity. Interestingly, analyses of the initiator caspase-8 and -9 revealed significantly increased activation levels compared to control values, suggesting the coexistent activation of both the extrinsic (receptor-mediated) and intrinsic (mitochondria-mediated) apoptosis pathway. Accordingly, expression levels of the Fas receptor (FasR) mRNA were significantly increased. Although the TNF receptor I (TNFR I) was only slightly upregulated, corresponding TNFα from trauma IVD presented significantly increased mRNA expression values. Furthermore, traumatic IVD cells demonstrated significantly reduced expression of the mitochondria-bound anti-apoptotic Bcl-2, thereby maintaining baseline transcriptional levels of the pro-apoptotic Bax protein when compared to control IVD cells.


Our data suggest that thoracolumbar fractures induce early caspase-dependent apoptosis in IVD cells of the affected intervertebral disc, in part, by downregulation of the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-2 (intrinsic apoptosis pathway), as well as signalling via the death receptor complex (TNFR I and FasR).