Traditional tendon‐to‐bone repair where the tendon is reattached to bone via suture anchors often results in disorganized scar production rather than the formation of a zonal insertion. In contrast, ligament reconstructions where tendon grafts are passed through bone tunnels can yield zonal tendon‐to‐bone attachments between the graft and adjacent bone. Therefore, ligament reconstructions can be used to study mechanisms that regulate zonal tendon‐to‐bone repair in the adult. Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstructions are one of the most common reconstruction procedures and while we know that cells from outside the graft produce the attachments, we have not yet established specific cell populations that give rise to this tissue. To address this knowledge gap, we performed ACL reconstructions in lineage tracing mice where α‐smooth muscle actin (αSMACreERT2) was used to label αSMA‐expressing progenitors within the bone marrow that produced zonal attachments. Expression of αSMA was increased during early stages of the repair process such that the contribution of SMA‐labeled cells to the tunnel integration was highest when tamoxifen was delivered in the first week post‐surgery. The zonal attachments shared features with normal entheses, including tidemarks oriented perpendicularly to collagen fibers, Col1a1‐expressing cells, alkaline phosphatase activity, and proteoglycan‐rich staining. Finally, the integration strength increased with time, requiring 112% greater force to remove the graft from the tunnel at 28 days compared with 14 days post‐surgery. Future studies will target these progenitor cells to define the pathways that regulate zonal tendon‐to‐bone repair in the adult.
Keywords: tendon‐to‐bone repair; ACL reconstruction; α‐smooth muscle actin; mineralized cryohistology; transgenic mice