Tenascin‐C (TNC) is an oligomeric glycoprotein of the extracellular matrix with several distinct isoforms variably expressed during embryogenesis, tumorogenesis, angiogenesis and wound healing. In the normal human adult, TNC is found in large concentrations in articular cartilage, suggesting tissue‐specific function. The purpose of this study was to determine the specific in vitro TNC splicing patterns of articular chondrocytes and a human chondrosarcoma cell line. Cells were cultured in a three‐dimensional bead system and TNC splice variant expression and distribution were examined with the use of Western blotting techniques, semi‐quantitative reverse‐transcription polymerase chain reaction and immunohistochemistry. At both the transcriptional and post‐translational levels, the chondrocytes were found to express significantly higher levels of the smaller 220 kDa isoform (
P< 0.01), which was predominantly incorporated into the matrix. The splicing pattern of the malignant cells was characterized by a higher proportion of the larger 320 kDa isoform which was extruded into the media. In vivo studies are necessary to verify the expression of the large TNC isoform in chondrosarcoma and the production and integration of the smaller isoform in normal chondroid matrix. In addition, elucidation of the biologic functions of the two major TNC isoforms may lead to the development of novel diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to chondrosarcoma. © 2002 Orthopaedic Research Society. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.