The ability to maintain living articular cartilage tissue in long-term culture can serve as a valuable analytical research tool, allowing for direct examination of mechanical or chemical perturbations on tissue behavior. A fundamental challenge for this technique is the recreation of the salient environmental conditions of the synovial joint in culture that are required to maintain native cartilage homeostasis. Interestingly, conventional media formulations used in explanted cartilage tissue culture investigations often consist of levels of metabolic mediators that deviate greatly from their concentrations in synovial fluid (SF). Here, we hypothesize that the utilization of a culture medium consisting of near-physiologic levels of several highly influential metabolic mediators (glucose, amino acids, cortisol, insulin, and ascorbic acid) will maintain the homeostasis of cartilage explants as assessed by their mechanical properties and extracellular matrix (ECM) contents. Results demonstrate that the aforementioned mediators have a strong effect on the mechanical and biochemical stability of skeletally immature bovine cartilage explants. Most notably, (1) in the absence of cortisol, explants exhibit extensive swelling and tissue softening and (2) in the presence of supraphysiologic levels of anabolic mediators (glucose, amino acids, insulin), explants exhibit increased matrix accumulation and tissue stiffening. In contrast, the administration of physiologic levels of these mediators (as present in native SF) greatly improves the stability of live cartilage explants over one month of culture. These results may have broad applicability for articular cartilage and other musculoskeletal tissue research, setting the foundation for important culture formulations required for examinations into tissue behavior.

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