Current treatments for cartilage lesions are often associated with fibrocartilage formation and donor site morbidity. Mechanical and biochemical stimuli play an important role in hyaline cartilage formation. Biocompatible scaffolds capable of transducing mechanical loads and delivering bioactive instructive factors may better support cartilage regeneration. In this study we aimed to test the interplay between mechanical and FGF-18 mediated biochemical signals on the proliferation and differentiation of primary bovine articular chondrocytes embedded in a chondro-conductive Fibrin-Hyaluronan (FB/HA) based hydrogel. Chondrocytes seeded in a Fibrin-HA hydrogel, with or without a chondro-inductive, FGFR3 selective FGF18 variant (FGF-18v) were loaded into a joint-mimicking bioreactor applying controlled, multi-axial movements, simulating the natural movements of articular joints. Samples were evaluated for DNA content, sulphated glycosaminoglycan (sGAG) accumulation, key chondrogenic gene expression markers and histology. Under moderate loading, samples produced particularly significant amounts of sGAG/DNA compared to unloaded controls. Interestingly there was no significant effect of FGF-18v on cartilage gene expression at rest. Following moderate multi-axial loading, FGF-18v upregulated the expression of Aggrecan (ACAN), Cartilage Oligomeric Matrix Protein (COMP), type II collagen (COL2) and Lubricin (PRG4). Moreover, the combination of load and FGF-18v, significantly downregulated Matrix Metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9) and Matrix Metaloproteinase-13 (MMP-13), two of the most important factors contributing to joint destruction in OA. Biomimetic mechanical signals and FGF-18 may work in concert to support hyaline cartilage regeneration and repair.Statement of significance
Articular cartilage has very limited repair potential and focal cartilage lesions constitute a challenge for current standard clinical procedures. The aim of the present research was to explore novel procedures and constructs, based on biomaterials and biomechanical algorithms that can better mimic joints mechanical and biochemical stimulation to promote regeneration of damaged cartilage. Using a hydrogel-based platform for chondrocyte 3D culture revealed a synergy between mechanical forces and growth factors. Exploring the mechanisms underlying this mechano-biochemical interplay may enhance our understanding of cartilage remodeling and the development of new strategies for cartilage repair and regeneration.