Self-assembling cell sheets have shown great potential for use in cartilage tissue engineering applications, as they provide an advantageous environment for the chondrogenic induction of human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs). We have engineered a system of self-assembled, microsphere-incorporated hMSC sheets capable of forming cartilage in the presence of exogenous transforming growth factor β1 (TGF-β1) or with TGF-β1 released from incorporated microspheres. Gelatin microspheres with two different degrees of crosslinking were used to enable different cell-mediated microsphere degradation rates. Biochemical assays, histological and immunohistochemical analyses, and biomechanical testing were performed to determine biochemical composition, structure, and equilibrium modulus in unconfined compression after 3 weeks of culture. The inclusion of microspheres with or without loaded TGF-β1 significantly increased sheet thickness and compressive equilibrium modulus, and enabled more uniform matrix deposition by comparison to control sheets without microspheres. Sheets incorporated with fast-degrading microspheres containing TGF-β1 produced significantly more GAG and GAG per DNA than all other groups tested and stained more intensely for type II collagen. These findings demonstrate improved cartilage formation in microsphere-incorporated cell sheets, and describe a tailorable system for the chondrogenic induction of hMSCs without necessitating culture in growth factor-containing medium.
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