Researchers at the University of Southampton and the Centre for Human Development, Stem Cells, and Regeneration have developed a new method to generate human cartilage tissue from stem cells. The technique could potentially lead to the development of new therapeutics for those with cartilage damage.

Their findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports in a paper titled, “A scaffold-free approach to cartilage tissue generation using human embryonic stem cells,” and led by Franchesca Houghton, PhD, associate professor, stem cells and developmental biology and Rahul Tare, PhD, lecturer, musculoskeletal science and bioengineering, both from the faculty of medicine at the University of Southampton.

“Articular cartilage functions as a shock absorber and facilitates the free movement of joints,” the researchers wrote. “Currently, there are no therapeutic drugs that promote the healing of damaged articular cartilage.”

The researchers sought to determine an alternative cell source for cartilage damage. They generated cartilage tissue in the laboratory by differentiating embryonic stem cells into cartilage cells, and then used these to generate three-dimensional pieces of cartilage tissue without any synthetic or natural supporting materials.

“Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) provide a readily accessible population of self-renewing, pluripotent cells with perceived immunoprivileged properties for cartilage generation. We have developed a robust method to generate 3D, scaffold-free, hyaline cartilage tissue constructs from hESCs that are composed of numerous chondrocytes in lacunae, embedded in an extracellular matrix containing Type II collagen, sulphated glycosaminoglycans, and Aggrecan.”

The researchers are the first to use the scaffold-free technique to generate cartilage tissue, which is scaled up beyond 1 mm without adversely affecting its structural and mechanical properties.

“This research is exciting as our ability to generate cartilage with properties akin to normal human cartilage has the potential to provide a robust tissue engineered product for cartilage repair,” explained Houghton.

“In conclusion, we have developed a robust and reproducible protocol to culture and differentiate hESCs into hyaline cartilage and, for the first time, have scaled up the size of the 3D, scaffold-free cartilage tissue constructs,” wrote the researchers. “The hESC-derived cartilage tissue has comparable structural and mechanical properties to native human articular cartilage and may provide an off-the-shelf tissue engineered product for cartilage repair.”