Human corneal endothelial cells (HCEC) have become increasingly important for a range of eye disease treatment therapies. Accordingly, a more detailed understanding of the processing and preservation associated stresses experienced by corneal cells might contribute to improved therapeutic outcomes. To this end, the unfolded protein response (UPR) pathway was investigated as a potential mediator of corneal cell death in response to hypothermic storage. Once preservation-induced failure had begun in HCECs stored at 4°C, it was noted that necrosis accounted for the majority of cell death but with significant apoptotic involvement, peaking at several hours post-storage (4-8h). Western blot analysis demonstrated changes associated with apoptotic activation (caspase 9, caspase 3, and PARP cleavage). Further, the activation of the UPR pathway was observed through increased and sustained levels of ER folding and chaperone proteins (Bip, PDI, and ERO1-Lα) in samples experiencing significant cell death. Modulation of the UPR pathway using the specific inhibitor, salubrinal, resulted in a 2-fold increase in cell survival in samples experiencing profound cold-induced failure. Furthermore, this increased cell survival was associated with increased membrane integrity, cell attachment, and decreased necrotic cell death populations. Conversely, addition of the UPR inducer, tunicamycin, during cold exposure resulted in a significant decrease in HCEC survival during the recovery period. These data implicate for the first time that this novel cell stress pathway may be activated in HCEC as a result of the complex stresses associated with hypothermic exposure. The data suggest that the targeted control of the UPR pathway during both processing and preservation protocols may improve cell survival and function of HCEC thus improving the clinical utility of these cells as well as whole human corneas.
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