Biomechanically, structurally and functionally meticulously tailored polycaprolactone/silk fibroin scaffold for meniscus regeneration

Meniscus deficiency, the most common and refractory disease in human knee joints, often progresses to osteoarthritis (OA) due to abnormal biomechanical distribution and articular cartilage abrasion. However, due to its anisotropic spatial architecture, complex biomechanical microenvironment, and limited vascularity, meniscus repair remains a challenge for clinicians and researchers worldwide. In this study, we developed a 3D printing-based biomimetic and composite tissue-engineered meniscus scaffold consisting of polycaprolactone (PCL)/silk fibroin (SF) with extraordinary biomechanical properties and biocompatibility. We hypothesized that the meticulously tailored composite scaffold could enhance meniscus regeneration and cartilage protection.

Methods: The physical property of the scaffold was characterized by scanning electron microscopy (SEM) observation, degradation test, frictional force of interface assessment, biomechanical testing, and fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy analysis. To verify the biocompatibility of the scaffold, the viability, morphology, proliferation, differentiation, and extracellular matrix (ECM) production of synovium-derived mesenchymal stem cell (SMSC) on the scaffolds were assessed by LIVE/DEAD staining, alamarBlue assay, ELISA analysis, and qRT-PCR. The recruitment ability of SMSC was tested by dual labeling with CD29 and CD90 by confocal microscope at 1 week after implantation. The functionalized hybrid scaffold was then implanted into the meniscus defects on rabbit knee joint for meniscus regeneration, comparing with the Blank group (no scaffold) and PS group. The regenerated meniscus tissue was evaluated by histological and immunohistochemistry staining, and biomechanical test. Macroscopic and histological scoring was performed to assess the outcome of meniscus regeneration and cartilage protection in vivo.

Results: The combination of SF and PCL could greatly balance the biomechanical properties and degradation rate to match the native meniscus. SF sponge, characterized by fine elasticity and low interfacial shear force, enhanced energy absorption capacity of the meniscus and improved chondroprotection. The SMSC-specific affinity peptide (LTHPRWP; L7) was conjugated to the scaffold to further increase the recruitment and retention of endogenous SMSCs. This meticulously tailored scaffold displayed superior biomechanics, structure, and function, creating a favorable microenvironment for SMSC proliferation, differentiation, and extracellular matrix (ECM) production. After 24 weeks of implantation, the histological assessment, biochemical contents, and biomechanical properties demonstrated that the polycaprolactone/silk fibroin-L7 (PS-L7) group was close to the native meniscus group, showing significantly better cartilage protection than the PS group.

Conclusion: This tissue engineering scaffold could greatly strengthen meniscus regeneration and chondroprotection. Compared with traditional cell-based therapies, the meniscus tissue engineering approach with advantages of one-step operation and reduced cost has a promising potential for future clinical and translational studies.