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Cartilage regeneration based on isolated and culture-expanded chondrocytes has been studied in various in vitro models, but the quality varies with respect to the morphology and the physiology of the synthesized tissues. The aim of our study was to promote in vitro chondrogenesis of human articular chondrocytes using a novel three-dimensional (3-D) cultivation system in combination with the chondrogenic differentiation factors transforming growth factor beta 2 (TGF-b2) and L-ascorbic acid. Articular chondrocytes isolated from six elderly patients were expanded in monolayer culture. A single-cell suspension of the dedifferentiated chondrocytes was then added to agar-coated dishes without using any scaffold material, in the presence, or absence of TGF-b2 and/or L-ascorbic acid. Three-dimensional cartilage-like constructs, called single spheroids, and microtissues consisting of several spheroids fused together, named as fusions, were formed. Generated tissues were mainly characterized using histological and immunohistochemical techniques. The morphology of the in vitro tissues shared some similarities to native hyaline cartilage in regard to differentiated S100-positive chondrocytes within a cartilaginous matrix, with strong collagen type II expression and increased synthesis of proteoglycans. Finally, our innovative scaffold-free fusion culture technique supported enhanced chondrogenesis of human articular chondrocytes in vitro. These 3-D hyaline cartilage-like microtissues will be useful for in vitro studies of cartilage differentiation and regeneration, enabling optimization of functional tissue engineering and possibly contributing to the development of new approaches to treat traumatic cartilage defects or osteoarthritis.
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