Introduction This study aimed to evaluate whether profiles of several soluble mediators in synovial fluid and cartilage tissue are pathology-dependent and how their production is related to in vitro tissue formation by chondrocytes from diseased and healthy tissue. Methods Samples were obtained from donors without joint pathology (n = 39), with focal defects (n = 65) and osteoarthritis (n = 61). A multiplex bead assay (Luminex) was performed measuring up to 21 cytokines: Interleukin (IL)-1α, IL-1β, IL-1RA, IL-4, IL-6, IL-6Rα, IL-7, IL-8, IL-10, IL-13, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)α, Interferon (IFN)γ, oncostatin M (OSM), leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF), adiponectin, leptin, monocyte chemotactic factor (MCP)1, RANTES, basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), vascular growth factor (VEGF). Results In synovial fluid of patients with cartilage pathology, IL-6, IL-13, IFNγ and OSM levels were higher than in donors without joint pathology (P ≤0.001). IL-13, IFNγ and OSM were also different between donors with cartilage defects and OA (P <0.05). In cartilage tissue from debrided defects, VEGF was higher than in non-pathological or osteoarthritic joints (P ≤0.001). IL-1α, IL-6, TNFα and OSM concentrations (in ng/ml) were markedly higher in cartilage tissue than in synovial fluid (P <0.01). Culture of chondrocytes generally led to a massive induction of most cytokines (P <0.001). Although the release of inflammatory cytokines was also here dependent on the pathological condition (P <0.001) the actual profiles were different from tissue or synovial fluid and between non-expanded and expanded chondrocytes. Cartilage formation was lower by healthy unexpanded chondrocytes than by osteoarthritic or defect chondrocytes. Conclusions Several pro-inflammatory, pro-angiogenic and pro-repair cytokines were elevated in joints with symptomatic cartilage defects and/or osteoarthritis, although different cytokines were elevated in synovial fluid compared to tissue or cells. Hence a clear molecular profile was evident dependent on disease status of the joint, which however changed in composition depending on the biological sample analysed. These alterations did not affect in vitro tissue formation with these chondrocytes, as this was at least as effective or even better compared to healthy chondrocytes.