Cathepsins are a group of cysteine proteinases that are involved in various aspects of extracellular matrix turnover. The collagenolytic activity of cathepsin K plays a pivotal role in bone resorption and lung matrix homeostasis, but so far has not been described in skin. To study the role of cathepsin K in the turnover of the cutaneous extracellular matrix, we studied the expression of cathepsin K in human skin and in cultured primary neonatal skin fibroblasts. Normal skin exhibited only low levels or no expression of cathepsin K. In contrast, dermal fibroblasts in surgical scars showed strong cytoplasmic cathepsin K expression. Cathepsin K expression was most prominent in young scars and declined with time. Cultured neonatal primary fibroblasts showed strong cathepsin K staining in the perinuclear endosomal compartment, consistent with intracellular degradation of internalized collagen in lysosomes. Cathepsin K was also found to be strongly expressed in keloids and dermatofibromas, but not in sclerotic areas of morphea. Our data suggest that cathepsin K may play an important role in the homeostasis of the dermal extracellular matrix and the dynamic equilibrium between matrix synthesis and proteolytic degradation, by counteracting deposition of matrix proteins during scar formation with its matrix-degrading activity.
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