Effects of dexamethasone on human lens epithelial cells in culture

Mol Vis. 2008 Jul 21;14:1344-52.


Purpose: Treatment with glucocorticoids is a well known risk factor for cataract development, although the pathogenic mechanism has not been elucidated. The aim of the study was to investigate the effects of glucocorticoids in cultured human lens epithelial cells.

Methods: Human lens epithelial cells (HLECs) were exposed to dexamethasone for 24 h. The number of viable cells was determined using the 3-[4, 5-dimethylthiazolyl-2]-2, 5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide (MTT) assay, and proliferation was quantified using Ki-67. Apoptosis was investigated by measuring caspase-3 activity and by evaluating nuclear morphology of cells stained with Hoechst 33342. Mitochondria depolarization was measured using the potential-sensitive color, JC-1. Cells were assayed for changes in superoxide production using dihydroethidium (HET), for alterations in peroxide production using dichlorofluorescein diacetate (DCFH-DA), and for glutathione (GSH) variations using monochlorobimane (MCB). Caspase-3 activity was also measured in HLECs simultaneously exposed to dexamethasone and the glucocorticoid antagonist, RU486.

Results: Low doses of dexamethasone (0.1 microM) resulted in increased proliferation of HLECs. Apoptosis was increased in HLECs exposed to 1 microM, 10 microM, and 100 microM of dexamethasone as revealed by nuclear morphology studies. Apoptosis was also confirmed by measuring caspase-3 activation. No effect on superoxide production by dexamethasone was seen. There were no effects on GSH levels or mitochondrial depolarization either. Only the highest concentration of dexamethasone (100 microM) caused an increase in peroxide production. In HLECs incubated with the glucocorticoid antagonist, RU486, apoptosis was induced at a lower concentration of dexamethasone (0.1 microM) than with dexamethasone alone.

Conclusions: Low doses of dexamethasone cause a moderate increase in proliferation of cultured HLECs. Slightly higher but still physiologically relevant concentrations of dexamethasone result in a dose-dependent increase in apoptosis. Dexamethasone-induced apoptosis in HLECs does not seem to involve oxidative mechanisms. The proapoptotic effect of dexamethasone does not appear to act through the glucocorticoid receptor. Effects on proliferation and/or dysregulation of apoptosis in lens epithelial cells may be an important factor in human steroid-induced posterior subcapsular cataract.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Caspase 3 / metabolism
  • Cell Count
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Dexamethasone / pharmacology*
  • Epithelial Cells / drug effects*
  • Epithelial Cells / enzymology
  • Glutathione / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Lens, Crystalline / cytology*
  • Lens, Crystalline / enzymology
  • Membrane Potential, Mitochondrial / drug effects
  • Mifepristone / pharmacology
  • Peroxides / metabolism
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Superoxides / metabolism


  • Peroxides
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • Superoxides
  • Mifepristone
  • Dexamethasone
  • Caspase 3
  • Glutathione