Background: The limbus forms the outer rim of the cornea at the corneoscleral junction and harbours a population of stem cells for corneal maintenance. Injuries to the limbus, through disease or accidents such as chemical injuries or burns, may lead to significant visual impairment due to depletion of the native stem cells of the tissue.
Methods: Sphere-forming cells were isolated from peripheral cornea for potential use as transplantable elements for limbal stem cell repopulation and limbal reconstruction. Immunocytochemistry, live cell imaging and quantitative PCR were used to characterize spheres and elucidate activity post implantation into human cadaveric corneal tissue.
Results: Spheres stained positively for stem cell markers ∆NP63α, ABCG2 and ABCB5 as well as the basal limbal marker and putative niche marker, notch 1. In addition, spheres also stained positively for markers of corneal cells, vimentin, keratin 3, keratocan and laminin, indicating a heterogeneous mix of stromal and epithelial-origin cells. Upon implantation into decellularized corneoscleral tissue, 3D, polarized and radially orientated cell migration with cell proliferation was observed. Cells migrated out from the spheres and repopulated the entire corneal surface over 14 days. Post-implantation analysis revealed qualitative evidence of stem, stromal and epithelial cell markers while quantitative PCR showed a quantitative reduction in keratocan and laminin expression indicative of an enhanced progenitor cell response. Proliferation, quantified by PCNA expression, significantly increased at 4 days subsequently followed by a decrease at day 7 post implantation.
Conclusion: These observations suggest great promise for the potential of peripheral corneal spheres as transplantable units for corneal repair, targeting ocular surface regeneration and stem cell repopulation.
Keywords: Cell culture; Cornea; Holoclone; Immunocytochemistry; Quantitative PCR; Spheroid.