Degradation of the cartilage proteoglycan, aggrecan, is an essential aspect of normal growth and development, and of joint pathology. The roles of different proteolytic enzymes in this process can be determined from the sites of cleavage in the aggrecan core protein, which generates novel termini (neoepitopes). Antibodies specific for the different neoepitopes generated by such cleavage events provide powerful tools with which to analyse these processes. The same approach can be used to differentiate the processed, active forms of proteases from their inactive pro-forms. Since the proteolytic processing of these enzymes requires the removal of the inhibitory pro-region, it also results in the generation of N-terminal neoepitopes. Using the newborn rat long bone as a model system, it was shown that the active form of ADAMTS-4 [ADAM (a disintegrin and metalloproteinase) with thrombospondin motifs-4], but not ADAMTS-5, co-localizes with the aggrecan cleavage neoepitopes known to be produced by this metalloproteinase. Thus, in long bone growth, aggrecan turnover seems to be dependent on ADAMTS-4 activity. To demonstrate the molecular basis of the specificity of anti-neoepitope antibodies, the Fv region of a monoclonal antibody specific for a neoepitope generated by the ADAMTS-4-mediated cleavage of aggrecan has been modelled and the binding of the peptide epitope simulated. In the docked structure, the N-terminus of the peptide antigen is clearly buried in the binding-site cavity. The absence of an open cleft makes it impossible for the intact substrate to pass through the binding site, providing a rationale for the specificity of this class of antibodies.

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