OBJECTIVE: To determine molecular changes in the expression of insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) and transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-beta1) in horses with osteochondrosis, and to characterize expression of matrix aggrecan and collagen types I, II, and X in articular cartilage of affected joints. SAMPLE POPULATION: Articular cartilage from affected stifle or shoulder joints of 11 horses with naturally acquired osteochondrosis and corresponding joints of 11 clinically normal horses. PROCEDURE: Harvested specimens were snap frozen in liquid nitrogen, and total RNA was isolated. Specimens were fixed in 4% paraformaldehyde for histologic examinations. Expression of matrix molecules was assessed by analysis of northern blots and in situ hybridization, using equine-specific cDNA probes and riboprobes, respectively. Expression of IGF-I and TGF-beta1 was assessed by use of noncompetitive quantitative polymerase chain reaction, in situ hybridization, and immunohistochemical analysis. RESULTS: Cartilage obtained from osteochondrosis lesions had significantly greater expression of IGF-I, compared with normal cartilage. Expression of TGF-beta1 and collagen type I were higher, but not significantly so, in affected tissues. Expression of aggrecan or collagen types II and X did not differ between affected and clinically normal cartilage. CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE: Increased expression of growth factors and collagen type I was found in cartilage from osteochondrosis lesions. However, this probably reflects a healing response to injured tissue rather than a primary alteration. Therefore, methods aimed at altering concentrations of growth factors in cartilage of growing horses would be unlikely to alter the incidence or progress of the disease.