The fate of ocular surface epithelial cells in response to injury of the cornea was examined. Corneal epithelial cells were labeled during DNA synthesis with [3H]thymidine 1 h prior to wounding. A 3-mm diameter epithelial defect was made in the center of the rat cornea, with the basement membrane remaining intact. Within 12 h of abrasion, labeled cells were detected in the regenerating surface. At 18 h, there was a 2.7- and 17-fold increase of labeled basal and suprabasal cells, respectively, in the epithelium adjacent to the wound, and at 24 and 30 h there was an excessive number of cell layers (up to 7) at the margin of the abrasion. Re-epithelialization progressed as a gradient of cell layers that became diminished towards the center of the wound. Completion of layers 1, 2, 3, and 4 were recorded at 24, 30, 36, and 72 h, respectively. No changes in the labeling index of the limbus or conjunctiva were noted. These results suggest that processes of centripetal and vertical migration, as well as events related to cell division, in the uninjured corneal surface are not impeded by wounding of the corneal epithelium. However, wound healing appears to require cells with a basal phenotype, presumably because of this cell type's migratory capability.
Copyright 1999 Elsevier Science B.V.