Purpose: Regeneration of the corneal epithelium could be severely impaired in patients suffering from limbal stem cell deficiency. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the restoration of the corneal epithelium by grafting onto denuded corneas autologous limbal cells cultured on fibrin gels. The rabbit model was chosen to allow the microscopic evaluation over time after grafting.
Methods: Rabbit limbal epithelial cells (RLECs) were isolated and cultured from small limbal biopsies (3 mm2). The epithelium was separated from stroma after dispase digestion and put in culture on lethally irradiated fibroblasts used as a feeder layer. At the first passage, RLECs were cultured on a fibrin gel matrix. At confluence, the cultured epithelia were grafted in vivo on denuded autologous rabbit corneas. At different postoperative times, grafted and control (without graft or grafted with fibrin gels only) rabbit corneas were compared in vivo with a slit lamp microscope, and in situ by histological and immunohistological microscopy of harvested biopsies.
Results: A small limbal biopsy was sufficient to generate enough RLECs to prepare several grafts and to perform cell analysis. Only two weeks were required to produce a cultured epithelium suitable for autologous transplantation. One month after grafting, a normal corneal phenotype was observed on the ocular surface of grafted rabbits in contrast to the control rabbits (ungrafted or grafted with fibrin gel only) where histological signs of conjunctivalization were found. The absence of goblet cells and negative staining for keratin 4 confirmed that the cultured cells persisted and that the epithelium regenerated after grafting was not from conjunctival origin.
Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that an autologous epithelium cultured on a physiologically biodegradable matrix can be prepared from a small biopsy and grafted on denuded cornea. The autologous graft allows epithelial regeneration from cultured cells and promotes corneal healing of unilateral total stem cell deficiency.