Articular cartilage injury and degeneration causing pain and loss of quality-of-life has become a serious problem for increasingly aged populations. Given the poor self-renewal of adult human chondrocytes, alternative functional cell sources are needed. Direct reprogramming by small molecules potentially offers an oncogene-free and cost-effective approach to generate chondrocytes, but has yet to be investigated. Here, we directly reprogrammed mouse embryonic fibroblasts into PRG4+ chondrocytes using a 3D system with a chemical cocktail, VCRTc (valproic acid, CHIR98014, Repsox, TTNPB, and celecoxib). Using single-cell transcriptomics, we revealed the inhibition of fibroblast features and activation of chondrogenesis pathways in early reprograming, and the intermediate cellular process resembling cartilage development. The in vivo implantation of chemical-induced chondrocytes at defective articular surfaces promoted defect healing and rescued 63.4% of mechanical function loss. Our approach directly converts fibroblasts into functional cartilaginous cells, and also provides insights into potential pharmacological strategies for future cartilage regeneration.
Keywords: cartilage regeneration; chemical reprogramming; drug discovery; single-cell analysis.
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