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Synchrotron radiation inline phase-contrast imaging combined with computed tomography (SR-inline-PCI-CT) offers great potential for non-invasive characterization and three-dimensional visualization of fine features in weakly absorbing materials and tissues. For cartilage tissue engineering, the biomaterials and any associated cartilage extracellular matrix (ECM) that is secreted over time are difficult to image using conventional absorption-based imaging techniques. For example, three-dimensional printed polycaprolactone (PCL)/alginate/cell hybrid constructs have low, but different, refractive indices and thicknesses. This paper presents a study on the optimization and utilization of inline-PCI-CT for visualizing the components of three-dimensional printed PCL/alginate/cell hybrid constructs for cartilage tissue engineering. First, histological analysis using Alcian blue staining and immunofluorescent staining assessed the secretion of sulfated glycosaminoglycan (GAGs) and collagen type II (Col2) in the cell-laden hybrid constructs over time. Second, optimization of inline PCI-CT was performed by investigating three sample-to-detector distances (SDD): 0.25, 1 and 3 m. Then, the optimal SDD was utilized to visualize structural changes in the constructs over a 42-day culture period. The results showed that there was progressive secretion of cartilage-specific ECM by ATDC5 cells in the hybrid constructs over time. An SDD of 3 m provided edge-enhancement fringes that enabled simultaneous visualization of all components of hybrid constructs in aqueous solution. Structural changes that might reflect formation of ECM also were evident in SR-inline-PCI-CT images. Summarily, SR-inline-PCI-CT images captured at the optimized SDD enables visualization of the different components in hybrid cartilage constructs over a 42-day culture period.

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