The role of NGF signaling in human limbal epithelium expanded by amniotic membrane culture

Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2002 Apr;43(4):987-94.


Purpose: Amniotic membrane (AM) transplantation facilitates rapid epithelialization in severe neurotrophic corneal ulcers. To elucidate its action mechanism, we investigated the expression of ligands and receptors of the neurotrophin family by human limbal epithelial (HLE) cells expanded on AM cultures.

Methods: Expression of nerve growth factor (NGF); neurotrophins (NT)3 and NT4; brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF); tyrosine kinase-transducing receptors TrkA, TrkB, and TrkC; and a pan-NT low-affinity receptor (p75(NTR)) was examined by immunostaining in the normal human corneolimbus, HLE grown on intact epithelially denuded AM, and stratified HLE, after subcutaneous implantation in NIH-bg-nu-xid BR mice. NGF protein level was assayed by an ELISA in extracts of intact and epithelially denuded AM. K252a, a specific inhibitor of TrkA autophosphorylation, was added to test whether it would inhibit HLE expansion on AM culture.

Results: Strong positive TrkA staining was confined to the basal epithelial cell layer of normal corneal and limbal epithelia, with the highest intensity noted in the limbus. TrkA staining was also strongly positive in the basal layer of HLE cells cultured on intact and epithelially denuded AM and in basal and some suprabasal layers of stratified HLE transplanted in nude mice. Positive staining of p75(NTR) was noted in the full-thickness of the corneal epithelium but was limited to the superficial layers of the limbus and in HLE cells cultured on intact and epithelially denuded AM, but was weak in HLE transplanted to nude mice. Weak staining of NT3 and TrkC was noted in the suprabasal layers of corneal and limbal epithelia but was negative in the stratified HLE in nude mice. Negative staining of NGF, NT4, BDNF, and TrkB was noted in all specimens tested. The NGF protein level was readily measured as 35.6 +/- 9.1 and 41 +/- 12.5 pg/mg protein in the homogenate of the intact and epithelially denuded AM, respectively (P = 0.0256). K252a significantly inhibited the HLE outgrowth on intact AM culture (P = 0.024).

Conclusions: The strong expression of TrkA but not p75(NTR) in the limbal basal epithelial cells in vivo suggests that NGF signaling favors limbal epithelial stem cell survival. Such a phenotype is preserved in HLE cells on AM. Blocking NGF signaling significantly retarded HLE expansion on AM, supporting the notion that NGF is important in expansion of limbal epithelial progenitor cells. Furthermore, a high and therapeutic level of NGF was present in AM. Collectively, these findings indicate that denervated neurotrophic ulcers are associated with poor epithelial stem cell function at the limbus. Future studies are needed to determine whether AM transplantation to heal such ulcers may include the promotion of nerve regeneration and survival of epithelial progenitor cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Amnion / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / metabolism
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay
  • Epithelium / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunoenzyme Techniques
  • Limbus Corneae / cytology
  • Limbus Corneae / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Nerve Growth Factors / metabolism*
  • Neurotrophin 3 / metabolism
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / metabolism
  • Receptor, Nerve Growth Factor
  • Receptors, Nerve Growth Factor / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • Nerve Growth Factors
  • Neurotrophin 3
  • Receptor, Nerve Growth Factor
  • Receptors, Nerve Growth Factor
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases
  • neurotrophin 4