Inflammatory cells are capable of degrading extracellular matrix macromolecules in vivo in the presence of proteinase inhibitors. We and others have hypothesized that such proteolysis is permitted in large part by mechanisms operative in the immediate pericellular environment, especially at zones of contact between inflammatory cells and insoluble matrix components. To further test this hypothesis in vitro, we have used a model system in which viable polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMN) are allowed to contact a surface coated with proteinase-sensitive substrate, and in which PMN interaction with the surface can be modulated. We have evaluated proteolysis of the surface-bound protein in the presence and absence of proteinase inhibitors. Our results were: (a) In the presence (but not in the absence) of proteinase inhibitors, proteolysis was confined to sharply marginated zones subjacent to the cells; (b) opsonization of the surface enhanced spreading of the PMN, (c) opsonization diminished the effectiveness of alpha-1-proteinase inhibitor (alpha-1-PI) and alpha-2-macroglobulin as inhibitors of proteolysis of surface-bound protein; (d) anti-oxidants did not alter the effectiveness of alpha-1-PI in inhibiting proteolysis of opsonized substrate by PMN; and (e) PMN could restrict entry of alpha-1-PI into zones of contact with opsonized surfaces. We conclude that: (a) In the presence of proteinase inhibitors, PMN can express sharply marginated and exclusively pericellular proteolytic activity; (b) locally high proteinase concentrations and/or exclusion of proteinase inhibitors from pericellular microenvironments may be important mechanisms for pericellular matrix degradation by PMN; and (c) these observations may have general relevance to extracellular matrix remodeling by a variety of inflammatory and other cell types.

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