SPARC promotes self-renewal of limbal epithelial stem cells and ocular surface restoration through JNK and p38-MAPK signaling pathways

Stem Cells. 2020 Jan;38(1):134-145. doi: 10.1002/stem.3100. Epub 2019 Nov 19.


The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of secreted protein acidic and rich in cysteine (SPARC) on the maintenance of limbal epithelial stem cell (LESC) stemness and restoration of ocular surface. To determine the suitable concentration of SPARC for LESC culture, the marker expression, mitogenic effect, and holoclone-forming capacity of LESCs treated with different concentrations of SPARC were analyzed. To investigate the mechanism of SPARC's action on the preservation of LESCs stemness, the phosphorylation of related signaling pathways was evaluated by Western blotting. A corneal wound model was established to verify the function of SPARC in ocular surface repair. Consecutive subculturing, colony-forming efficiency, immunofluorescence, and 5-ethynyl-2-deoxyuridine incorporation assays indicated that 1 μg/mL SPARC was a suitable concentration to stimulate LESC proliferation and preserve their proliferative potential. Compared with a control group, 1 μg/mL SPARC effectively increased the expression of ABCG-2, Bmi-1, and Ki67, while decreasing that of CK3/12. The mitogenic effect of SPARC on LESCs was found to be mediated by the phosphorylation of c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) and p38-MAPK signaling pathways, whereas the inhibitors of JNK and p38 MAPK reduced the marker expression and mitogenic capacity of LESCs. In a corneal injury model, SPARC facilitated corneal epithelial wound healing and promoted the proliferation of p63α-positive cells both in the limbus and in the epithelial healing front. SPARC promotes proliferation while suppressing spontaneous differentiation of LESCs through JNK and p38-MAPK signaling pathways, suggesting that SPARC is a promising factor for the improvement of LESCs culture in vitro and in vivo.

Keywords: cornea epithelium; limbal epithelial stem cells; regenerative medicine; secreted protein acidic and rich in cysteine; wound healing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • 3T3 Cells
  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation / physiology
  • Cell Proliferation / physiology
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • JNK Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism*
  • Limbus Corneae / metabolism*
  • MAP Kinase Signaling System
  • Mice
  • Osteonectin / metabolism*
  • Rabbits
  • p38 Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism*


  • Osteonectin
  • JNK Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases
  • p38 Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases