Slits are large secreted proteins critical for axon guidance and neuronal precursor cell migration in nervous system. Evidence suggests that classical neuronal guidance cues also regulate vascular development. Our objective was to investigate whether neuronal guidance cue Slit2 and Roundabout (Robo) receptors are involved in corneal neovascularization (NV). Corneal NV model in rats was induced by implantation of agarose-coated gelfoam pellets containing basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF) into corneal stroma. Differential expression of Slit2 and Robo1-4 between normal and neovascularized cornea was detected by real-time RT-PCR and visualized by immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization. Primary human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs) were harvested and their expression of Robo1-4 was detected by RT-PCR. Recombinant human Slit2 protein was prepared and the effect of it on the migration of vascular endothelial cells was examined using cell migration assay. Agarose-coated gelfoam pellets were able to induce well-localized and reproducible corneal NV model. A significant down-regulation of Slit2 and a strong up-regulation of Robo1 and Robo4 were seen in neovascularized cornea when compared with normal cornea (P < 0.05). Slit2, Robo1 and Robo4 were throughout the epithelium in normal cornea and markedly weak or absent in epithelium in neovascularized cornea, with Robo1 and Robo4 being prominent in vascular endothelial cells invading the stroma. Primary HUVECs were confirmed to express both Robo1 and Robo4 receptors and their migration was inhibited by Slit2 (P < 0.05). This is the first study to assess the association between Slit2 and corneal NV. Our findings suggest that the interaction of Slit2 with Robo1 and Robo4 receptors plays an essential role in inhibiting pathological neovascular processes of the cornea and may represent a new therapeutic target for corneal NV.
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