Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are resident in the bone marrow throughout normal adult life and have the capacity to differentiate along a number of connective tissue pathways, among them bone, cartilage, and fat. To determine whether functionally normal MSC populations may be isolated from patients with advanced osteoarthritis (OA), we have compared cells from patients undergoing joint replacement with cells from normal donors. Cell populations were compared in terms of yield, proliferation, and capacity to differentiate.


MSCs were prepared from bone marrow aspirates obtained from the iliac crest or from the tibia/femur during joint surgery. In vitro chondrogenic activity was measured as glycosaminoglycan and type II collagen deposition in pellet cultures. Adipogenic activity was measured as the accumulation of Nile Red O-positive lipid vacuoles, and osteogenic activity was measured as calcium deposition and by von Kossa staining.


Patient-derived MSCs formed colonies in primary culture that were characteristically spindle-shaped with normal morphology. The primary cell yield in 36 of 38 cell cultures from OA donors fell within the range found in cultures from normal donors. However, the proliferative capacity of patient-derived MSCs was significantly reduced. There was a significant reduction in in vitro chondrogenic and adipogenic activity in cultures of patient-derived cells compared with that in normal cultures. There was no significant difference in in vitro osteogenic activity. There was no decline in chondrogenic potential with age in cells obtained from individuals with no evidence of OA.


These results raise the possibility that the increase in bone density and loss of cartilage that are characteristic of OA may result from changes in the differentiation profile of the progenitor cells that contribute to the homeostatic maintenance of these tissues.