Tendon ruptures are increasingly common, repair can be difficult, and healing is poorly understood. Tissue engineering approaches often require expansion of cell numbers to populate a construct, and maintenance of cell phenotype is essential for tissue regeneration. Here, we characterize the phenotype of human Achilles tenocytes and assess how this is affected by passaging. Tenocytes, isolated from tendon samples from 6 patients receiving surgery for rupture of the Achilles tendon, were passaged 8 times. Proliferation rates and cell morphology were recorded at passages 1, 4, and 8. Total collagen, the ratio of collagen types I and III, and decorin were used as indicators of matrix formation, and expression of the integrin beta1 subunit as a marker of cell-matrix interactions. With increasing passage number, cells became more rounded, were more widely spaced at confluence, and confluent cell density declined from 18,700/cm2 to 16,100/cm2 ( p = 0.009). No change to total cell layer collagen was observed but the ratio of type III to type I collagen increased from 0.60 at passage 1 to 0.89 at passage 8 ( p < 0.001). Decorin expression significantly decreased with passage number, from 22.9 +/- 3.1 ng/ng of DNA at passage 1, to 9.1 +/- 1.8 ng/ng of DNA at passage 8 ( p < 0.001). Integrin expression did not change. We conclude that the phenotype of tenocytes in culture rapidly drifts with progressive passage.
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