Purpose: The pattern of immune cells infiltrating the corneal stroma has been extensively studied in mice, but data on human tissue have been far less elaborate. To further characterize the number and differentiation state of resident immune cells in organ-cultured human corneal tissue, we employed a comprehensive bioinformatic deconvolution (xCell) of bulk RNA-sequencing (RNA-seq) data, immunohistochemistry (IHC), and flow cytometry (FC).
Methods: A transcriptome-based analysis of immune cell types in human corneal samples was performed. The results were validated by IHC, focusing on the identification of pro-inflammatory (M1) and regulatory (M2) macrophages. A protocol was established to identify these 2 different macrophage populations in human corneal tissue by means of FC. Subsequently, corneal samples in organ culture were differentially stimulated by IL-10, IL-4 & IL-13, or LPS and macrophage populations were evaluated regarding their response to these stimuli. Furthermore, cell survival was analyzed in correlation with time in organ culture.
Results: xCell-based mathematical deconvolution of bulk RNA-seq data revealed the presence of CD8 T cells, Th17 cells, dendritic cells, and macrophages as the predominant immune cell types in organ-cultured human corneal tissue. Furthermore, RNA-seq allowed the detection of different macrophage marker genes in corneal samples, including PTPRC (CD45), ITGAM (CD11b), CD14, and CD74. Our RNA-seq data showed no evidence of a relevant presence of monocytes in human corneal tissue. The presence of different macrophage subtypes was confirmed by IHC. The disintegration and subsequent FC analysis of human corneal samples showed the presence of both M1 (HLA-DR+, CD282+, CD86+, and CD284+) and M2 (CD163+ and CD206+) macrophage subtypes. Furthermore, we found that the total number of macrophages in corneal samples decreased more than the total cell count with increasing tissue culture time. Treatment with IL-10 led to higher total cell counts per cornea and to an increased expression of the M2 marker CD163 (p < 0.05) while expression levels of various M1 macrophage markers were not significantly reduced by interleukin treatment.
Conclusions: Regarding different macrophage populations, untreated human corneas showed more M1 than M2 macrophages. With increasing organ culture time, these macrophages decreased. In terms of cell dynamics, adding interleukins to the organ culture medium influenced the phenotype of macrophages within the cornea as detected by FC. Modifying the immunomodulatory properties of human grafts appears a promising approach to further reduce the risk of graft rejection in patients. In this context, treatment with interleukins was more effective in upregulating M2 macrophages than in suppressing M1 macrophages in corneal tissue.
Keywords: Cornea; Corneal graft; Corneal graft rejection; Flow cytometry; Immunophenotyping; Macrophages; RNA-sequencing.
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by S. Karger AG, Basel.