Background: Understanding the effectiveness of frozen as compared with fresh osteochondral allografts at six months after surgery and the resultant consequences of traditional freezing may facilitate in vivo maintenance of cartilage integrity. Our hypothesis was that the state of the allograft at implantation affects its performance after six months in vivo.
Methods: The effect of frozen as compared with fresh storage on in vivo allograft performance was determined for osteochondral allografts that were transplanted into seven recipient goats and analyzed at six months. Allograft performance was assessed by examining osteochondral structure (cartilage thickness, fill, surface location, surface degeneration, and bone-cartilage interface location), zonal cartilage composition (cellularity, matrix content), and cartilage biomechanical function (stiffness). Relationships between cartilage stiffness or cartilage composition and surface degeneration were assessed with use of linear regression.
Results: Fresh allografts maintained cartilage load-bearing function, while also maintaining zonal organization of cartilage cellularity and matrix content, compared with frozen allografts. Overall, allograft performance was similar between fresh allografts and nonoperative controls. However, cartilage stiffness was approximately 80% lower (95% confidence interval [CI], 73% to 87%) in the frozen allografts than in the nonoperative controls or fresh allografts. Concomitantly, in frozen allografts, matrix content and cellularity were approximately 55% (95% CI, 22% to 92%) and approximately 96% (95% CI, 94% to 99%) lower, respectively, than those in the nonoperative controls and fresh allografts. Cartilage stiffness correlated positively with cartilage cellularity and matrix content, and negatively with surface degeneration.
Conclusions: Maintenance of cartilage load-bearing function in allografts is associated with zonal maintenance of cartilage cellularity and matrix content. In this animal model, frozen allografts displayed signs of failure at six months, with cartilage softening, loss of cells and matrix, and/or graft subsidence, supporting the importance of maintaining cell viability during allograft storage and suggesting that outcomes at six months may be indicative of long-term (dys)function.
Clinical relevance: Fresh versus frozen allografts represent the "best versus worst" conditions with respect to chondrocyte viability, but "difficult versus simple" with respect to acquisition and distribution. The outcomes described from these two conditions expand the current understanding of in vivo cartilage remodeling and describe structural properties (initial graft subsidence), which may have implications for impending graft failure.