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Abstract

Chondrocytes that were isolated from adult human articular cartilage changed phenotype during monolayer tissue culture, as characterized by a fibroblastic morphology and cellular proliferation. Increased proliferation was accompanied by downregulation of the cartilage-specific extracellular matrix proteoglycan, aggrecan, by cessation of type-II collagen expression, and by upregulation of type-I collagen and versican. This phenomenon observed in monolayer was reversible after the transfer of cells to a suspension culture system. The transfer of chondrocytes to suspension culture in alginate beads resulted in the rapid upregulation of aggrecan and type-II collagen and the downregulation of expression of versican and type-I collagen. Type-X collagen and osteopontin, markers of chondrocyte hypertrophy and commitment to endochondral ossification, were not expressed by adult articular chondrocytes cultured in alginate, even after 5 months. In contrast, type-X collagen was expressed within 2 weeks in a population of cells derived from a fetal growth plate. The inability of adult articular chondrocytes to express markers of chondrocyte hypertrophy has underscored the fundamental distinction between the differentiation pathways that lead to articular cartilage or to bone. Adult articular chondrocytes expressed only hyaline articular cartilage markers without evidence of hypertrophy.