To understand whether a low-frequency pulsed electromagnetic field (EMF) could help cartilage tissue repair in the scope of tissue engineering, we tested how EMF affected collagen gel properties and the behaviors of chondrocyte cells embedded in collagen constructs. Collagen gel and primary chondrocytes embedded in collagen were exposed to EMF for 24 h. Gel and cells that were not exposed to EMF served as controls. Collagen gel exposed to EMF was more hydrophobic and less susceptible to enzymatic degradation (both p < 0.05) than control. Three weeks after EMF exposure, chondrocytes showed higher proliferation and lower glycosaminoglycan (GAG) production (both p < 0.05) than control. By the end of the third week, aggrecan, type I, II, and X collagen mRNA expressions in the EMF group were 1.8 times higher (p < 0.05), except for type II collagen) than control. The increase in gene expression did not show up in aggrecan histological staining and type II and type X collagen immunohistochemical staining. Cells from both groups kept a normal polygonal shape through out the test period. Our results suggested that one-time EMF exposure could promote collagen-embedded chondrocytes proliferation and their gene expressions. It also promoted short-term (week 1) GAG production and lacuna formation. No apparent GAG and type II collagen production was seen in histological staining three weeks after the EMF exposure.
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