Background: The transplantation of human limbal epithelium on amniotic membrane as a substrate is a new treatment for limbal stem cell deficiency. Limbal epithelial stem cells are characterized by a slow cell cycle and the lack of K3 keratin and connexin 43 (Cx43), a gap junction protein. We investigated Cx43 expression, gap junction intercellular communication (GJIC), and proliferative activity of limbal epithelium expanded on amniotic membrane.
Methods: Connexin 43 expression and bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU) incorporation were determined by immunohistology. The GJIC was investigated by a scrape-loading dye transfer assay. Expression of Cx43 and K3 keratin as well as BrdU-retaining nuclei were also analyzed after xenotransplantation in nude mice.
Results: Limbal epithelium showed mean +/- SD 12.4% +/- 14.5% positive units of Cx43 expression and a low BrdU labeling index of 2.4% +/- 0.9% (n = 5), of which the latter was due to slow cycling, as proved by its increase to 62.0% +/- 9.5% after continuous BrdU labeling for 5 days. Most of the expanded epithelium did not show GJIC (83%), significantly more than that grown on plastic (6%; P<.002). Basal cells of the stratified epithelium after xenotransplantation did not express Cx43 and K3 keratin, but their nuclei retained BrdU.
Conclusion: These results support the hypothesis that intact amniotic membrane preferentially preserves and expands Cx43-negative, keratin K3-negative, and GJIC-deficient limbal epithelium, a phenotype resembling that of stem cell-containing limbal basal epithelial cells in vivo.
Clinical relevance: Intact amniotic membrane is a suitable substrate for bioengineering limbal epithelia for ocular surface reconstruction.