High sulfation, low cost, and the status of heparin as an already FDA- and EMA- approved product, mean that its inclusion in tissue engineering (TE) strategies is becoming increasingly popular. However, the use of heparin may represent a naïve approach. This is because tissue formation is a highly orchestrated process, involving the temporal expression of numerous growth factors and complex signaling networks. While heparin may enhance the retention and activity of certain growth factors under particular conditions, its binding ‘promiscuity’ means that it may also inhibit other factors that, for example, play an important role in tissue maintenance and repair. Within this review we focus on articular cartilage, highlighting the complexities and highly regulated processes that are involved in its formation, and the challenges that exist in trying to effectively engineer this tissue. Here we discuss the opportunities that glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) may provide in advancing this important area of regenerative medicine, placing emphasis on the need to move away from the common use of heparin, and instead focus research towards the utility of specific GAG preparations that are able to modulate the activity of growth factors in a more controlled and defined manner, with less off-target effects.
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