When cultured with sufficient nutrient supply, engineered cartilage synthesizes proteoglycans rapidly, producing an osmotic swelling pressure that destabilizes immature collagen and prevents the development of a robust collagen framework, a hallmark of native cartilage. We hypothesized that mechanically constraining the proteoglycan-induced tissue swelling would enhance construct functional properties through the development of a more stable collagen framework. To test this hypothesis, we developed a novel "cage" growth system to mechanically prevent tissue constructs from swelling while ensuring adequate nutrient supply to the growing construct. The effectiveness of constrained culture was examined by testing constructs embedded within two different scaffolds: agarose and cartilage-derived matrix hydrogel (CDMH). Constructs were seeded with immature bovine chondrocytes and cultured under free swelling (FS) conditions for 14 days with transforming growth factor-β before being placed into a constraining cage for the remainder of culture. Controls were cultured under FS conditions throughout. Agarose constructs cultured in cages did not expand after the day 14 caging while FS constructs expanded to 8 × their day 0 weight after 112 days of culture. In addition to the physical differences in growth, by day 56, caged constructs had higher equilibrium (agarose: 639 ± 179 kPa and CDMH: 608 ± 257 kPa) and dynamic compressive moduli (agarose: 3.4 ± 1.0 MPa and CDMH 2.8 ± 1.0 MPa) than FS constructs (agarose: 193 ± 74 kPa and 1.1 ± 0.5 MPa and CDMH: 317 ± 93 kPa and 1.8 ± 1.0 MPa for equilibrium and dynamic properties, respectively). Interestingly, when normalized to final day wet weight, cage and FS constructs did not exhibit differences in proteoglycan or collagen content. However, caged culture enhanced collagen maturation through the increased formation of pyridinoline crosslinks and improved collagen matrix stability as measured by α-chymotrypsin solubility. These findings demonstrate that physically constrained culture of engineered cartilage constructs improves functional properties through improved collagen network maturity and stability. We anticipate that constrained culture may benefit other reported engineered cartilage systems that exhibit a mismatch in proteoglycan and collagen synthesis.
Keywords: cartilage tissue engineering; collagen; constrained culture; proteoglycans; pyridinoline.