Extracellular Matrix Expression and Production in Fibroblast-Collagen Gels: Towards an In Vitro Model for Ligament Wound Healing

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—Ligament wound healing involves the proliferation of a dense and disorganized fibrous matrix that slowly remodels into scar tissue at the injury site. This remodeling process does not fully restore the highly aligned collagen network that exists in native tissue, and consequently repaired ligament has decreased strength and durability. In order to identify treatments that stimulate collagen alignment and strengthen ligament repair, there is a need to develop in vitro models to study fibroblast activation during ligament wound healing. The objective of this study was to measure gene expression and matrix protein accumulation in fibroblast-collagen gels that were subjected to different static stress conditions (stress-free, biaxial stress, and uniaxial stress) for three time points (1, 2 or 3 weeks). By comparing our in vitro results to prior in vivo studies, we found that stress-free gels had time-dependent changes in gene expression (col3a1, TnC) corresponding to early scar formation, and biaxial stress gels had protein levels (collagen type III, decorin) corresponding to early scar formation. This is the first study to conduct a targeted evaluation of ligament healing biomarkers in fibroblast-collagen gels, and the results suggest that biomimetic in-vitro models of early scar formation should be initially cultured under biaxial stress conditions.