The Ideal Recipe for Cartilage from Stem Cells

Researchers at Case Western Reserve and Harvard University will use a 5-year, $2-million NIH grant to build a microfactory that bangs out the optimal formula for joint cartilage. Such an end product could one day potentially benefit many of the tens of thousands of people in the United States who suffer from cartilage loss or damage.

Joint cartilage or articular cartilage caps the ends of long bones and bears the loads, absorbs shocks and, in combination with lubricating synovial fluid, helps knees, hips, shoulders, and other joints to smoothly bend, lift, and rotate. Unfortunately, this tissue has little capacity to regenerate, which means that there is a critical need for new therapeutic strategies.

Artificial substitutes cannot match real cartilage and attempts to engineer articular cartilage have been stymied by the complexities of directing stem cells to differentiate into chondrocytes and form the right kind of cartilage.

Stem cells are quite responsive to the environmental cues presented to them from their surroundings. What this research project hopes to determine are those specific cue that drive stem cells to differentiate into chondrocytes that make the right kind of cartilage with the right kind of microarchitecture that resembles natural, articular cartilage. To do this, they will engage in a systematic study of the effects of cellular micro-environmental factors that influence stem cell differentiation and cartilage formation.

Bone marrow- and fat-derived mesenchymal stem cells have been differentiated into cartilage-making chondrocytes in the laboratory. These two stem cell populations are distinct, however, and required different conditions in order to drive them to differentiate into chondrocytes. This research group, however, has designed new materials with unique physical properties, cell adhesive capabilities, and have the capacity to deliver bioactive molecules.

By controlling the presentation of these signals to cells, independently and in combination with mechanical cues, this group hopes to identify those most important cues for driving cells to differentiate into chondrocytes.

Ali Khademhosseini specializes in microfabrication and micro-and nano-scale technologies to control cell behavior. He and his team will develop a microscale high-throughput system at his laboratory that will accelerate the testing and analysis of materials engineered in another laboratory.

This research cooperative hopes to test and analyze more than 3,000 combinations of factors that may influence cell development, including differentiation, amounts of biochemicals, extracellular matrix properties, compressive stresses, and more. Khademhosseini and his colleagues hope to begin testing comditions identified from these studies in animal models by the of the grant term.


Published by


Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).