New Use of a Three-Dimensional Pellet Culture System for Human Intervertebral Disc Cells: Initial Characterization and Potential Use for Tissue Engineering

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Study Design. Human intervertebral disc cells were cultured in a new three-dimensional “pellet culture” system as an alternative to conventional alginate bead microspheres. Histologic, biochemical, and immunohistologic assays were performed to characterize this new culturing method for disc cells. The feasibility of using the pellet culture system to study effects of gene therapy was also assessed.Objectives. To characterize a new and simpler, three-dimensional culture system for human intervertebral disc cells and to assess the feasibility of its use for gene therapy and tissue engineering studies.Summary of Background Data. The alginate microsphere three-dimensional culture system has been the most utilized culture method for disc cells, but it is technically difficult and has some disadvantages. Recently, the “pellet culture” method, a simpler three-dimensional culture system, was described for bone marrow stromal cells. This simpler method might be useful for in vitro and in vivo studies of disc cells as well as for delivery of exogenous genes.Methods. Isolated human intervertebral disc cells were centrifuged at low speeds to form aggregates and allowed to grow as pellets for up to 3 weeks. At various times these pellet cultures were analyzed grossly, histologically, and immunohistologically. Their ability to incorporate [35S]sulfate in their response to TGF-β1 was also analyzed. The ability of these pellets to deliver and express exogenous genes in vivo was analyzed by implantation of pellet cultures in muscles of SCID mice.Results. Within several days the intervertebral disc cells were able to form mature three-dimensional aggregates that were each well encapsulated by a fibrous capsule. These pellets successfully synthesized proteoglycan and collagen Type II matrix as determined by histology and immunohistochemistry. In response to TGF-β1, the pellets increased synthesis of proteoglycan and collagen Type II. When implanted into thigh muscles of SCID mice, the pellets remained aggregated and expressed the β-galactosidase marker gene in vivo for up to 2 weeks.Conclusions. The pellet culture system is a new and technically simple method to culture human intervertebral disc cells. The majority of the human intervertebraldisc cells retained their native phenotype in this threedimensional system and expressed a marker gene both in vitro and in vivo. Thus, this pellet system might be useful for in vitro and in vivo biochemical studies as well as for studies involving gene therapy and tissue engineering.

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