Increasing evidence implicates serine proteinases in the proteolytic cascades leading to the pathological destruction of extracellular matrices such as cartilage in osteoarthritis (OA). We have previously demonstrated that the type II transmembrane serine proteinase (TTSP) matriptase acts as a novel initiator of cartilage destruction via the induction and activation of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). Hepsin is another TTSP expressed in OA cartilage such that we hypothesized this proteinase may also contribute to matrix turnover. Herein, we demonstrate that addition of hepsin to OA cartilage in explant culture induced significant collagen and aggrecan release and activated proMMP-1 and proMMP-3. Furthermore, hepsin directly cleaved the aggrecan core protein at a novel cleavage site within the interglobular domain. Hepsin expression correlated with synovitis as well as tumour necrosis factor α
expression, and was induced in cartilage by a pro-inflammatory stimulus. However, a major difference compared to matriptase was that hepsin demonstrated markedly reduced capacity to activate proteinase-activated receptor-2. Overall, our data suggest that hepsin, like matriptase, induces potent destruction of the extracellular matrix whilst displaying distinct
efficiencies for the cleavage of specific substrates.