Background: Progenitor cells in mesenchymal tissues are important in the maintenance of tissue homeostasis and regeneration capacity. Articular cartilage is a tissue with a very low capacity for repair. One explanation could be the lack of chondrogenic progenitor cells within the adult tissue. As a test of chondrogenic differentiation potential, we examined the ability of isolated chondrocytes to take on several phenotypic identities within the mesenchymal lineage by applying culture techniques and markers used in the study of the phenotypic plasticity of marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).
Methods: Culture-expanded human articular chondrocytes were analyzed for chondrogenic, adipogenic, and osteogenic capacity in defined in vitro culture systems. The osteochondrogenic potential of cells loaded into porous calcium-phosphate ceramic cubes implanted into mice was also determined.
Results: The different assays demonstrated that culture-expanded chondrocytes have the potential to form cartilage in pellet mass cultures, to form adipose cells in dense monolayer cultures, and to form a calcium-rich matrix in an osteogenic assay. In the in vitro assays, a variability of phenotypic plasticity was demonstrated among the donors. In contrast with MSCs, chondrocytes formed cartilage only (and not bone) in the in vivo osteochondrogenic assay.
Conclusions: These results suggest that, within articular cartilage, there are chondrogenic cells that exhibit a level of phenotypic plasticity that is comparable with that of MSCs. However, there was a difference in the expression of bone in the in vivo assay.
Clinical Relevance: Chondrogenic cells may play an important role in the control of cartilage tissue homeostasis. Because of their plasticity, this population could be targeted in vivo for tissue regeneration or could be enriched for transplantation purposes.