Quantifying the effects of mechanical loading on the metabolic response of chondrocytes is difficult due to complicated structure of cartilage ECM and the coupled nature of the mechanical stimuli presented to the cells. In this study we describe the effects of fluid flow, particularly hydrostatic pressure and wall shear stress, on the Ca(2+) signaling response of bovine articular chondrocytes in 3D culture. Using well-established alginate hydrogel system to maintain spherical chondrocyte morphology, we altered solid volume fraction to change scaffold mechanics. Fluid velocities in the bulk of the scaffolds were directly measured via an optical technique and scaffold permeability and aggregate modulus was characterized to quantify the mechanical stimuli presented to cells. Ca(2+) signaling response to direct perfusion of chondrocyte-seeded scaffolds increased monotonically with flow rate and was found more directly dependent on fluid velocity rather than shear stress or hydrostatic pressure. Chondrocytes in alginate scaffolds responded to fluid flow at velocities and shear stresses 2-3 orders of magnitude lower than seen in previous monolayer studies. Our data suggest that flow-induced Ca(2+) signaling response of chondrocytes in alginate culture may be due to mechanical signaling pathways, which is influenced by the 3D nature of cell shape.
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