Articular cartilage is a highly functional tissue which covers the ends of long bones and serves to ensure proper joint movement. A tissue engineering approach that recapitulates the developmental characteristics of articular cartilage can be used to examine the maturation and degeneration of cartilage and produce fully functional neotissue replacements for diseased tissue.
This study examined the development of articular cartilage neotissue within a self-assembling process in two phases. In the first phase, articular cartilage constructs were examined at 1, 4, 7, 10, 14, 28, 42, and 56 days immunohistochemically, histologically, and through biochemical analysis for total collagen and glycosaminoglycan (GAG) content. Based on statistical changes in GAG and collagen levels, four time points from the first phase (7, 14, 28, and 56 days) were chosen to carry into the second phase, where the constructs were studied in terms of their mechanical characteristics, relative amounts of collagen types II and VI, and specific GAG types (chondroitin 4-sulfate, chondroitin 6-sulfate, dermatan sulfate, and hyaluronan). Collagen type VI was present in initial abundance and then localized to a pericellular distribution at 4 wks. N-cadherin activity also spiked at early stages of neotissue development, suggesting that self-assembly is mediated through a minimization of free energy. The percentage of collagen type II to total collagen significantly increased over time, while the proportion of collagen type VI to total collagen decreased between 1 and 2 wks. The chondroitin 6- to 4- sulfate ratio decreased steadily during construct maturation. In addition, the compressive properties reached a plateau and tensile characteristics peaked at 4 wks.
The indices of cartilage formation examined in this study suggest that tissue maturation in self-assembled articular cartilage mirrors known developmental processes for native tissue. In terms of tissue engineering, it is suggested that exogenous stimulation may be necessary after 4 wks to further augment the functionality of developing constructs.