A Co-culture System Makes Better Cartilage for Tissue Replacement

At joints, the bones are covered with cartilage to act as a shock absorber. Articular cartilage, or cartilage at joints, is usually characterized by very low friction, high wear resistance, but very abilities to regenerate. Articular cartilage is responsible for much of the compressive resistance and load bearing qualities of joints, and without it, even activities as simple and walking is too painful. Osteoarthritis is a condition that results from cartilage failure, and limits the range of joint motion, increases the bone damage and also causes a respectable amount of pain. When the cartilage of the articular surface erodes, the bone is exposed and grinding of the bone creates bone spurs, extensive inflammation and pain.

Treating osteoarthritis requires that one make new cartilage that has similar properties as articular cartilage. Unfortunately, mesenchymal stem cells that are differentiated into cartilage making cells (chondrocytes) and implanted into the knee tend to make fibrocartilage, which is different than the hyaline cartilage that composes articular cartilage. Fibrocartilage does not possess the high-wear resistance characteristics of hyaline cartilage and it tends to erode rather rapidly after formation. Therefore, directing mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) to form proper cartilage is a genuine challenge.

A paper that appear in Stem Cell Translational Medicine from Gilda A. Barabino, who is a faculty member at the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, examines a technique to coax MSCs to make articular cartilage.

As Barbino points out, traditional protocols that direct MSCs to differentiate into chondrocytes uses culture systems of MSCs that have been treated with various growth factors, such as transforming growth factor-β. Unfortunately, these culture systems tend to fall short in meeting the needs of clinical applications, largely because they yield terminally differentiated cells that enlarge and then form bone.

In this study Barbino and her co-workers co-cultured bone marrow-derived MSCs with juvenile articular chondrocytes. The rationale is that the MSCs would receive just the right growth factors in just the right concentrations and at the right time to drive MSC cartilage formation. Physical contact between cells can also do a better job of driving them to differentiate into various cells types rather than simply treating them with growth factors.

Barbino and others discovered that an initial chondrocyte/MSC ratio of 63:1 worked the best and the MSCs form chondrocytes that had the right cells shape, behavior, and characteristics of articular chondrocytes.

Next, Barbino and her team grew the MSCs in a three-dimensional agarose system. Three-dimensional systems are generally thought to more realistically recapitulate the cartilage-making system present at joints. In this 3-D culture system, when co-cultured with juvenile articular chondrocytes, bone marrow MSCs develop into robust neocartilage that was structurally and mechanically stronger than the same cultures that only contained chondrocytes.

There was another advantage to this culture system; cultured MSCs that are induced to form cartilage tend to cease all expression of a surface protein called CD44, which is an important regulator in cartilage biology. However, when cultured in the 3-D culture, the MSCs retained the expression of CD44, which suggests that these co-cultured MSCs, which cultured in a 3-D culture system form chondrocytes that make superior articular cartilage, but retain CD44, which allows cartilage maintenance.

This shows that making articular cartilage from MSCs is probably possible and only requires the right culture system. Also, co-culturing MSCs with articular chondrocytes in a 3-D culture system might be one of the better culture systems for developing clinically relevant cartilage for tissue replacements.