Cell-based cartilage-resurfacing procedures may be enhanced by the addition of insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I) to the transplant biomatrix. Given the relatively short half-life of IGF-I in biological systems, however, maintenance of effective concentrations of this peptide necessitates either high initial doses, or repeated treatment. This study investigated IGF-I delivery via adenoviral gene therapy, targeting graftable articular chondrocytes. Cultured articular chondrocytes were infected with an E1-deleted adenoviral vector containing IGF-I-coding sequence under CMV promoter control. Increased adenovirus-IGF-I concentrations resulted in coordinate increase in IGF-I mRNA and ligand expression; however, chondrocyte matrix synthesis was maximized by the lower adenovirus-IGF-I concentration (100 MOI) without additional increase at 200 or 500 MOI. Using 100 MOI, infected monolayers produced medium IGF-I content of at least 10 ng/ml in each 48-hr period for 28 days, reaching a day 4 peak concentration of 66 +/- 4.0 ng/ml. These concentrations were sufficient to produce significant stimulation of normal cartilage matrix gene expression. The concentration of secreted matrix products in medium from infected monolayers was increased up to 8-fold over uninfected control cultures. Moreover, compared with uninfected cultures, cells in infected cultures were more resistant to de-differentiation over time under serum-starved conditions, maintaining a normal chondrocyte molecular phenotype for at least 28 days. These data indicate that cultured chondrocytes are readily transduced by recombinant adenoviral vectors. The adenoviral-IGF transgene is abundantly expressed and its product secreted at therapeutic concentrations for at least 28 days, resulting in increased matrix biosynthesis and maintenance of the chondrocytic phenotype. Combined, this information suggests that there may be significant value in preimplantation adenoviral-IGF gene therapy for chondrocytes destined for cartilage resurfacing.