The abundant extracellular matrix of articular cartilage has to be maintained by a limited number of chondrocytes. Vice versa, the extracellular matrix has an important role in the regulation of chondrocyte function.
Objective: In this review we discuss the role of the extracellular matrix in the regulation of chondrocyte function and the relevance for cartilage tissue engineering. To reach this goal the international literature on this subject has been searched with a major focus on the last 5 years.
Results: Structural matrix macromolecules (e.g. collagen, hyaluronate), but also growth factors (e.g. IGF-I, TGF beta) entrapped in the matrix and released under specific conditions affect chondrocyte behavior. These factors communicate with the chondrocyte via specific membrane receptors. In this way there is a close interaction between the extracellular and intracellular milieu. Articular cartilage has a limited capacity of intrinsic repair, which has resulted in the development of tissue engineering approaches to repair damaged cartilage. Successful application of scaffolds has to take into account the important role of both soluble and insoluble matrix-derived factors in cartilage homeostasis.
Conclusion: Functional tissue engineering will only be realized when the scaffolds used will provide cartilage cells with the correct extracellular signals.