Devitalized hypertrophic cartilage matrix (DCM) is an attractive concept for an off-the-shelf bone graft substitute. Upon implantation, DCM can trigger the natural endochondral ossification process, but only when the hypertrophic cartilage matrix has been reconstituted correctly. In vivo hypertrophic differentiation has been reported for multiple cell types but up-scaling and in vivo devitalization remain a big challenge. To this end, we developed a micro tissue-engineered cartilage (MiTEC) model using the chondrogenic cell line ATDC5. Micro-aggregates of ATDC5 cells (approximately 1000 cells per aggregate) were cultured on a 3% agarose mold consisting of 1585 microwells, each measuring 400 µm in diameter. Chondrogenic differentiation was strongly enhanced using media supplemented with combinations of growth factors e.g., insulin, transforming growth factor beta and dexamethasone. Next, mineralization was induced by supplying the culture medium with beta-glycerophosphate, and finally we boosted the secretion of proangiogenic growth factors using the hypoxia mimetic phenanthroline in the final stage of in vivo culture. Then, ATDC5 aggregates were devitalized by freeze/thawing or sodium dodecyl sulfate treatment before co-culturing with human mesenchymal stromal cells (hMSCs). We observed a strong effect on chondrogenic differentiation of hMSCs. Using this MiTEC model, we were able to not only upscale the production of cartilage to a clinically relevant amount but were also able to vary the cartilage matrix composition in different ways, making MiTEC an ideal model to develop DCM as a bone graft substitute.
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