NFκB inhibition to lift the mechano-competence of mesenchymal stromal cell-derived neocartilage toward articular chondrocyte levels

Stem Cell Res Ther. 2022 Apr 27;13(1):168. doi: 10.1186/s13287-022-02843-x.


Background: Fully functional regeneration of skeletal defects by multipotent progenitor cells requires that differentiating cells gain the specific mechano-competence needed in the target tissue. Using cartilage neogenesis as an example, we asked whether proper phenotypic differentiation of mesenchymal stromal cells (MSC) into chondrocytes in vitro will install the adequate biological mechano-competence of native articular chondrocytes (AC).

Methods: The mechano-competence of human MSC- and AC-derived neocartilage was compared during differentiation for up to 35 days. The neocartilage layer was subjected to physiologic dynamic loading in a custom-designed bioreactor and assayed for mechano-sensitive gene and pathway activation, extracellular matrix (ECM) synthesis by radiolabel incorporation, nitric oxide (NO) and prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) production. Input from different pathways was tested by application of agonists or antagonists.

Results: MSC and AC formed neocartilage of similar proteoglycan content with a hardness close to native tissue. Mechano-stimulation on day 21 and 35 induced a similar upregulation of mechano-response genes, ERK phosphorylation, NO production and PGE2 release in both groups, indicating an overall similar transduction of external mechanical signals. However, while AC maintained or enhanced proteoglycan synthesis after loading dependent on tissue maturity, ECM synthesis was always significantly disturbed by loading in MSC-derived neocartilage. This was accompanied by significantly higher COX2 and BMP2 background expression, > 100-fold higher PGE2 production and a weaker SOX9 stimulation in response to loading in MSC-derived neocartilage. Anabolic BMP-pathway activity was not rate limiting for ECM synthesis after loading in both groups. However, NFκB activation mimicked the negative loading effects and enhanced PGE2 production while inhibition of catabolic NFκB signaling rescued the load-induced negative effects on ECM synthesis in MSC-derived neocartilage.

Conclusions: MSC-derived chondrocytes showed a higher vulnerability to be disturbed by loading despite proper differentiation and did not acquire an AC-like mechano-competence to cope with the mechanical stress of a physiologic loading protocol. Managing catabolic NFκB influences was one important adaptation to install a mechano-resistance closer to AC-derived neocartilage. This new knowledge asks for a more functional adaptation of MSC chondrogenesis, novel pharmacologic co-treatment strategies for MSC-based clinical cartilage repair strategies and may aid a more rational design of physical rehabilitation therapy after AC- versus MSC-based surgical cartilage intervention.

Keywords: BMP; Chondrocytes; Extracellular matrix (ECM) synthesis; Mechanical loading; Mechano-competence; Mesenchymal stromal cells (MSC); NFκB; Nitric oxide (NO)/iNOS; Prostaglandin E2 (PGE2); Tissue engineering.

MeSH terms

  • Cartilage, Articular* / metabolism
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Chondrocytes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mesenchymal Stem Cells* / metabolism
  • NF-kappa B / metabolism
  • Prostaglandins E / metabolism
  • Proteoglycans / metabolism


  • NF-kappa B
  • Prostaglandins E
  • Proteoglycans