Objective: To investigate the heterogeneity of in vitro expanded chondrocytes used for autologous chondrocyte implantation.
Methods: Human articular chondrocytes were expanded in vitro for 14 days, sorted into 86 single cells using fluorescence-activated cell sorting and subjected to single-cell RNA sequencing. Principal component, Cross R2 hierarchical clustering, and differential gene expression analyses were used for data evaluation. Flow cytometry and single-cell RT-qPCR (reverse transcriptase quantitative polymerase chain reaction) was used to validate the results of the RNA sequencing data Polyclonal chondrocyte populations from the same donor were differentiated in vitro toward the osteogenic and adipogenic lineages.
Results: There was considerable variation in gene expression between individual cells, but we found no evidence for separate cell subpopulations based on principal component, hierarchical clustering, and differential gene expression analysis. Most of the cells expressed all the markers defining mesenchymal stem cells, and as polyclonal chondrocyte populations from the same donor were shown to differentiate into osteocytes and adipocytes in vitro, these cells formally qualify as mesenchymal stem cells.
Conclusions: In vitro expanded chondrocytes consist of one single population of cells with heterogeneity in gene expression between the cells. Dedifferentiated chondrocytes qualify as mesenchymal stem cells as they fulfill all the criteria suggested by the International Society for Cellular Therapy.
Keywords: ACI; articular cartilage; chondrocytes; mesenchymal stem cells; single-cell RNA sequencing.