NELL-1 promotes cartilage regeneration in an in vivo rabbit model

Ronald K. Siu, Janette N. Zara, Yaping Hou, Aaron W. James, Jinny Kwak, Xinli Zhang, Kang Ting, Benjamin M. Wu, Chia Soo, Min Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Repair of cartilage due to joint trauma remains challenging due to the poor healing capacity of cartilage and adverse effects related to current growth factor-based strategies. NELL-1 (Nel-like molecule-1; Nel [a protein strongly expressed in neural tissue encoding epidermal growth factor like domain]), a protein first characterized in the context of premature cranial suture fusion, is believed to accelerate differentiation along the osteochondral lineage. We previously demonstrated the ability of NELL-1 protein to maintain the cartilaginous phenotype of explanted rabbit chondrocytes in vitro. Our objective in the current study is to determine whether NELL-1 can affect endogenous chondrocytes in an in vivo cartilage defect model. To generate the implant, NELL-1 was incorporated into chitosan nanoparticles and embedded into alginate hydrogels. These implants were press fit into 3-mm circular osteochondral defects created in the femoral condylar cartilage of 3-month-old New Zealand White rabbits (n=10). Controls included unfilled defects (n=8) and defects filled with phosphate-buffered saline-loaded chitosan nanoparticles embedded in alginate hydrogels (n=8). Rabbits were sacrificed 3 months postimplantation for histological analysis. Defects filled with alginate containing NELL-1 demonstrated significantly improved cartilage regeneration. Remarkably, histology of NELL-1-treated defects closely resembled that of native cartilage, including stronger Alcian blue and Safranin-O staining and increased deposition of type II collagen and absence of the bone markers type I collagen and Runt-related transcription factor 2 (Runx2) as demonstrated by immunohistochemistry. Our results suggest that NELL-1 may produce functional cartilage with properties similar to native cartilage, and is an exciting candidate for tissue engineering-based approaches for treating diverse pathologies of cartilage defects and degeneration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)252-261
Number of pages10
JournalTissue Engineering - Part A
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Feb 1 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Bioengineering
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomaterials
  • Biomedical Engineering


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