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Degradation of articular cartilage extracellular matrix (ECM) by proteolytic enzyme is the hallmark of arthritis that leads to joint destruction. Detection of early biochemical changes in cartilage before irreversible structural damages become apparent is highly desirable. Here we report that the autofluorescence decay profile of cartilage is significantly affected by proteolytic degradation of cartilage ECM and can be characterised by measurements of the autofluorescence lifetime (AFL). A multidimensional fluorometer utilizing ultraviolet excitation at 355 nm or 375 nm coupled to a fibreoptic probe was developed for single point time-resolved AFL measurements of porcine articular cartilage explants treated with different proteinases. Degradation of cartilage matrix components by treating with bacterial collagenase, matrix metalloproteinase 1, or trypsin resulted in significant reduction of AFL of the cartilage in both a dose and time dependent manner. Differences in cartilage AFL were also confirmed by fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM). Our data suggest that AFL of cartilage tissue is a potential non-invasive readout to monitor cartilage matrix integrity that may be utilized for diagnosis of arthritis as well as monitoring the efficacy of anti-arthritic therapeutic agents. © 2014 SPIE.

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