Identification and characterization of limbal stem cells

Exp Eye Res. 2005 Sep;81(3):247-64. doi: 10.1016/j.exer.2005.02.016.


The maintenance of a healthy corneal epithelium under both normal and wound healing conditions is achieved by a population of stem cells (SC) located in the basal epithelium at the corneoscleral limbus. In the light of the development of strategies for reconstruction of the ocular surface in patients with limbal stem cell deficiency, a major challenge in corneal SC biology remains the ability to identify stem cells in situ and in vitro. Until recently, the identification of limbal stem cells mainly has been based on general properties of stem cells, e.g. lack of differentiation, prolonged label-retaining, indefinite capacity of proliferation exemplified by the clonogenic assay as well as their special role in corneal wound healing. During the last years, a number of molecular markers for the limbal SC compartment has been proposed, however, their role in distinguishing limbal SC from their early progeny is still under debate. Data reported from the literature combined with our own recent observations suggest, that the basal epithelial cells of the human limbus contain ABCG2, K19, vimentin, KGF-R, metallothionein, and integrin alpha9, but do not stain for K3/K12, Cx43, involucrin, P-cadherin, integrins alpha2, alpha6, and beta4, and nestin, when compared to the basal cells of the corneal epithelium. A relatively higher expression level in basal limbal cells was observed for p63, alpha-enolase, K5/14, and HGF-R, whereas there were no significant differences in staining intensity for beta-catenin, integrins alphav, beta1, beta2, and beta5, CD71, EGF-R, TGF-beta-RI, TGF-beta-RII, and TrkA between limbal and corneal basal epithelial cells. Therefore, a combination of differentiation-associated markers (e.g. K3/K12, Cx43, or involucrin) and putative SC-associated markers (e.g. ABCG2, K19, vimentin, or integrin alpha9) may provide a suitable tool for identification of human limbal SC. While most putative SC markers label the majority of limbal basal cells and, therefore, may not distinguish SC from progenitor cells, only ABCG2 was strictly confined to small clusters of basal cells in the limbal epithelium. At present, ABCG2 therefore appears to be the most useful cell surface marker for the identification and isolation of corneal epithelial SC. Moreover, the characteristics of the specific microenvironment of corneal SC, as provided by growth factor activity and basement membrane heterogeneity in the limbal area, could serve as additional tools for their selective enrichment and in vitro expansion for the purpose of ocular surface reconstruction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily G, Member 2
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / analysis
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Epithelium, Corneal / chemistry
  • Epithelium, Corneal / cytology
  • Eye Proteins / analysis
  • Humans
  • Limbus Corneae / chemistry
  • Limbus Corneae / cytology*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / analysis
  • Stem Cells / chemistry
  • Stem Cells / cytology*


  • ABCG2 protein, human
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily G, Member 2
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters
  • Biomarkers
  • Eye Proteins
  • Neoplasm Proteins