The gelatin-based haemostyptic compound Spongostan was tested as a three-dimensional (3D) chondrocyte matrix in an in vitro model for autologous chondrocyte transplantation using cells harvested from bovine knees. In a control experiment of monolayer cultures, the proliferation or de-differentiation of bovine chondrocytes was either not or only marginally influenced by the presence of Spongostan (0.3 mg/ml). In monolayers and 3-D Minusheet culture chambers, the cartilage-specific differentiation markers aggrecan and type-II collagen were ubiquitously present in a cell-associated fashion and in the pericellular matrix. The Minusheet cultures usually showed a markedly higher mRNA expression than monolayer cultures irrespective of whether Spongostan had been present or not during culture. Although the de-differentiation marker type-I collagen was also present, the ratio of type-I to type-II collagen or aggrecan to type-I collagen remained higher in Minusheet 3-D cultures than in monolayer cultures irrespective of whether Spongostan had been included in or excluded from the monolayer cultures. The concentration of GAG in Minusheet cultures reached its maximum after 14 days with a mean of 0.83 +/- 0.8 microg/10(6) cells; mean +/-, SEM, but remained considerably lower than in monolayer cultures with/without Spongostan. Our results suggest that Spongostan is in principle suitable as a 3-D chondrocyte matrix, as demonstrated in Minusheet chambers, in particular for a culture period of 14 days. Clinically, differentiating effects on chondrocytes, simple handling and optimal formability may render Spongostan an attractive 3-D scaffold for autologous chondrocyte transplantation.