Purpose: Keratoconus (KC) is a multifactorial disease where progressive thinning and weakening of the cornea leads to loss of visual acuity. Although the underlying etiology is poorly understood, a major endpoint is a dysfunctional stromal connective tissue matrix. Using multiple individual KC corneas, we determined that matrix production by keratocytes is severely impeded due to an altered stress response program.
Methods: KC and donor (DN) stromal keratocytes were cultured in low glucose serum-free medium containing insulin, selenium and transferrin. Fibronectin, collagens and proteins related to their chaperone, processing and export, matrix metalloproteinase, and stress response related proteins were investigated by immunoblotting, immunocytochemistry, hydroxyproline quantification, and gelatin zymography. Multiplexed mass spectrometry was used for global proteomic profiling of 5 individual DN and KC cell culture. Transcription of selected proteins was assayed by qPCR.
Results: DN and KC cells showed comparable survival and growth. However, immunoblotting of selected ECM proteins and global proteomics showed decreased fibronectin, collagens, PCOLCE, ADAMTS2, BMP1, HSP47, other structural and cytoskeletal proteins in KC. Phosphorylated (p) eIF2α, a translation regulator and its target, ATF4 were increased in KC cultured cells and corneal sections.
Conclusions: The profound decrease in structural proteins in cultured KC cells and increase in the p-eIF2α, and ATF4, suggest a stress related blockade in structural proteins not immediately needed for cell survival. Therefore, this cell culture system reveals an intrinsic aggravated stress response with consequent decrease in ECM proteins as potential pathogenic underpinnings in KC.