This study evaluated the potential of gene induced synoviocyte expression of a combination of insulin-like growth factor-I (AdIGF-I) and interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein (AdIL-1Ra) to control articular cartilage degradation in vitro. Cartilage explants and synovial membrane were harvested from young mature horses. Synovial monolayers were established and either (1) maintained as untransduced controls; (2) transduced with AdIGF-I at 200 MOI in 500 microl serum-free medium; (3) transduced with AdIL-1Ra at 100 MOI; or (4) transduced with a combination of AdIGF-I (200 MOI) and AdIL-1Ra (100 MOI). Following transduction, cartilage explants were exposed to the synovial monolayer medium using co-culture inserts. Cultures were maintained for 6 days in either serum-free medium or medium containing 10 ng/ml recombinant human interleukin-1beta. At termination, synovial cell RNA was isolated for real-time PCR analysis, and cartilage explants were collected for H&E and toluidine blue staining, immunohistochemistry for type II collagen and IGF-I, in situ localization of IGF-I and type II collagen gene expression, and biochemical assays. Synovial monolayers were readily transduced with both AdIGF-I and AdIL-1Ra. IGF-I and IL-1Ra protein were secreted at beneficial levels throughout the experiment, having peak concentrations of 94.6 ng/ml and 33.0 ng/ml, respectively. Transduction with IGF-I promoted cartilage production of proteoglycan and type II collagen, suggesting a beneficial role for healing injured cartilage. Transduction with IL-1Ra decreased the synovial expression of IL-1alpha and IL-1beta and matrix metalloproteinases, indicating a mechanism for prevention of matrix degradation. The beneficial effects of the combination of anabolic growth factors and catabolic blockers were evident in improved preservation of proteoglycan content of cartilage explants exposed to the depleting effects of IL-1. These results show that gene therapy combining anabolic growth factors to stimulate matrix synthesis and catabolic blockers to prevent matrix degradation by IL-1, protects and causes partial restoration of cartilage matrix, and suggest a potential benefit of combination gene therapy for cartilage healing.