Fuchs endothelial corneal dystrophy (FECD) is a genetic and oxidative stress disorder of post-mitotic human corneal endothelial cells (HCEnCs), which normally exhibit hexagonal shape and form a compact monolayer compatible with normal corneal functioning and clear vision. FECD is associated with increased DNA damage, which in turn leads to HCEnC loss, resulting in the formation rosettes and aberrant extracellular matrix (ECM) deposition in the form of pro-fibrotic guttae. Since the mechanism of ECM deposition in FECD is currently unknown, we aimed to investigate the role of endothelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) in FECD using a previously established cellular in vitro model that recapitulates the characteristic rosette formation, by employing menadione (MN)-induced oxidative stress. We demonstrate that MN treatment alone, or a combination of MN and TGF-β1 induces reactive oxygen species (ROS), cell death, and EMT in HCEnCs during rosette formation, resulting in upregulation of EMT- and FECD-associated markers such as Snail1, N-cadherin, ZEB1, and transforming growth factor-beta-induced (TGFβI), respectively. Additionally, FECD ex vivo specimens displayed a loss of organized junctional staining of plasma membrane-bound N-cadherin, with corresponding increase in fibronectin and Snail1 compared to ex vivo controls. Addition of N-acetylcysteine (NAC) downregulated all EMT markers and abolished rosette formation. Loss of NQO1, a metabolizing enzyme of MN, led to greater increase in intracellular ROS levels as well as a significant upregulation of Snail1, fibronectin, and N-cadherin compared to normal cells, indicating that NQO1 regulates Snail1-mediated EMT. This study provides first line evidence that MN-induced oxidative stress leads to EMT in corneal endothelial cells, and the effect of which is further potentiated when redox cycling activity of MN is enhanced by the absence of NQO1. Given that NAC inhibits Snail-mediated EMT, this may be a potential therapeutic intervention for FECD.
Keywords: Cornea; Endothelial-mesenchymal transition; Endothelium; Fuchs endothelial corneal dystrophy; Menadione; Oxidative stress, TGFβ.
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