Purpose: To evaluate the expression patterns of neurotrophic factors (NTFs) and their receptors in the human cornea with the intention of exploring the role of NTFs in maintaining corneal epithelial stem cells in the limbus.
Methods: Fresh human corneoscleral tissues were prepared for frozen sections. Immunofluorescent staining was performed with primary antibodies against six members of three NTF families and their six receptors. To confirm the specificity of NTF primary antibodies, neutralization experiments with their corresponding peptides and western blot analysis were performed.
Results: Based on spatial and differential immuno-localization, three patterns of NTF expression were potentially involved in epithelial-mesenchymal interaction on the ocular surface: (1) the epithelial type: nerve growth factor (NGF) and glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF); (2) the paracrine type: neurotrophin (NT)-3 and NT-4/5; and (3) the reciprocal type: brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The stem cell-enriched basal cells of the limbal epithelium expressed three unique staining patterns for NTFs: (1) exclusively positive for NGF, GDNF, and their corresponding receptors, TrkA and GDNF family receptor alpha (GFRalpha)-1; (2) relatively high levels of BDNF; and (3) negative for NT-3 and NT-4. Additionally, the neurotrophin common low-affinity receptor, p75NTR, was mainly expressed by the basal layer of the entire corneal and limbal epithelia, and TrkB and TrkC were evenly expressed by the entire corneal and limbal epithelia. BDNF, p75NTR, TrkB, and TrkC are also abundantly expressed by limbal stroma cells. No specific immunoreactivity to ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) and its receptor, CNTFRalpha, was detected in cornea tissue in situ.
Conclusions: Our findings revealed patterned expression of NTFs and their receptors in the human ocular surface, suggesting that they may play a vital role in maintaining corneal epithelial stem cells in the limbus. NGF, GDNF, GFRalpha-1, TrkA, and BDNF may serve as new limbal basal cell markers defining the corneal epithelial stem cell phenotype.