Transforming growth factor-beta-induced epithelial-mesenchymal transition in the lens: a model for cataract formation

Cells Tissues Organs. 2005;179(1-2):43-55. doi: 10.1159/000084508.


The vertebrate lens has a distinct polarity and structure that are regulated by growth factors resident in the ocular media. Fibroblast growth factors, in concert with other growth factors, are key regulators of lens fiber cell differentiation. While members of the transforming growth factor (TGFbeta) superfamily have also been implicated to play a role in lens fiber differentiation, inappropriate TGFbeta signaling in the anterior lens epithelial cells results in an epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) that bears morphological and molecular resemblance to forms of human cataract, including anterior subcapsular (ASC) and posterior capsule opacification (PCO; also known as secondary cataract or after-cataract), which occurs after cataract surgery. Numerous in vitro and in vivo studies indicate that this TGFbeta-induced EMT is part of a wound healing response in lens epithelial cells and is characterized by induced expression of numerous extracellular matrix proteins (laminin, collagens I, III, tenascin, fibronectin, proteoglycans), intermediate filaments (desmin, alpha-smooth muscle actin) and various integrins (alpha2, alpha5, alpha7B), as well as the loss of epithelial genes [Pax6, Cx43, CP49, alpha-crystallin, E-cadherin, zonula occludens-1 protein (ZO-1)]. The signaling pathways involved in initiating the EMT seem to primarily involve the Smad-dependent pathway, whereby TGFbeta binding to specific high affinity cell surface receptors activates the receptor-Smad/Smad4 complex. Recent studies implicate other factors [such as fibroblast growth factor (FGFs), hepatocyte growth factor, integrins], present in the lens and ocular environment, in the pathogenesis of ASC and PCO. For example, FGF signaling can augment many of the effects of TGFbeta, and integrin signaling, possibly via ILK, appears to mediate some of the morphological features of EMT initiated by TGFbeta. Increasing attention is now being directed at the network of signaling pathways that effect the EMT in lens epithelial cells, with the aim of identifying potential therapeutic targets to inhibit cataract, particularly PCO, which remains a significant clinical problem in ophthalmology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cataract / metabolism*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Embryonic Development*
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology
  • Epithelium / embryology*
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Integrins / metabolism
  • Lens, Crystalline / embryology*
  • Mesoderm / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Genetic
  • Phenotype
  • Phosphorylation
  • Signal Transduction
  • Time Factors
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / metabolism*


  • Integrins
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta