Human Osteochondral Explants: Reliable Biomimetic Models to Investigate Disease Mechanisms and Develop Personalized Treatments for Osteoarthritis | March 2021 | Rheumatology and Therapy

Evelyn Houtman, Marcella van Hoolwerff, Nico Lakenberg, Eka H. D. Suchiman, Enrike van der Linden-van der Zwaag, Rob G. H. H. Nelissen, Yolande F. M. Ramos & Ingrid Meulenbelt



Likely due to ignored heterogeneity in disease pathophysiology, osteoarthritis (OA) has become the most common disabling joint disease, without effective disease-modifying treatment causing a large social and economic burden. In this study we set out to explore responses of aged human osteochondral explants upon different OA-related perturbing triggers (inflammation, hypertrophy and mechanical stress) for future tailored biomimetic human models.


Human osteochondral explants were treated with IL-1β (10 ng/ml) or triiodothyronine (T3; 10 nM) or received 65% strains of mechanical stress (65% MS). Changes in chondrocyte signalling were determined by expression levels of nine genes involved in catabolism, anabolism and hypertrophy. Breakdown of cartilage was measured by sulphated glycosaminoglycans (sGAGs) release, scoring histological changes (Mankin score) and mechanical properties of cartilage.


All three perturbations (IL-1β, T3 and 65% MS) resulted in upregulation of the catabolic genes MMP13 and EPAS1. IL-1β abolished COL2A1 and ACAN gene expression and increased cartilage degeneration, reflected by increased Mankin scores and sGAGs released. Treatment with T3 resulted in a high and significant upregulation of the hypertrophic markers COL1A1COL10A1 and ALPL. However, 65% MS increased sGAG release and detrimentally altered mechanical properties of cartilage.


We present consistent and specific output on three different triggers of OA. Perturbation with the pro-inflammatory IL-1β mainly induced catabolic chondrocyte signalling and cartilage breakdown, while T3 initiated expression of hypertrophic and mineralization markers. Mechanical stress at a strain of 65% induced catabolic chondrocyte signalling and changed cartilage matrix integrity. The major strength of our ex vivo models was that they considered aged, preserved, human cartilage of a heterogeneous OA patient population. As a result, the explants may reflect a reliable biomimetic model prone to OA onset allowing for development of different treatment modalities.

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