Inflammation triggers degradation of intervertebral disc extracellular matrix (ECM), a hallmark of disc degeneration that contributes to back pain. Mechanosensitive nucleus pulposus cells are responsible for ECM production, yet the impact of a proinflammatory microenvironment on cell mechanobiology is unknown. Using gain- and lossof- function approaches, we show that tumor necrosis factor-α (TNFα)-induced inflammation alters cell morphology and biophysical properties (circularity, contractility, cell stiffness, and hydraulic permeability) in a mechanism dependent on actomyosin contractility in a three-dimensional (3D) culture. We found that RhoA activation rescued cells from TNFα-induced mechanobiological disruption. Using a novel explant-in-hydrogel culture system, we demonstrate that nuclear factor kappa-B nuclear translocation and transcription are mechanosensitive, and its downstream effects on ECM degradation are regulated by actomyosin contractility. Results define a scaling relationship between circularity, contractility, and hydraulic permeability that is conserved from healthy to inflammatory microenvironments and is indicative of cell mechanobiological control across scales in 3D.
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