High expression of SARS-CoV2 viral entry-related proteins in human limbal stem cells

Ocul Surf. 2022 Jan:23:197-200. doi: 10.1016/j.jtos.2021.10.002. Epub 2021 Oct 13.


Purpose: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2). While the ocular surface is considered one of the major SARS-CoV2 transmission routes, the specific cellular tropism of SARS-CoV2 is not fully understood. In the current study, we evaluated the expression and regulation of two SARS-CoV2 viral entry proteins, TMPRSS2 and ACE2, in human ocular epithelial cells and stem cells.

Methods: TMPRSS2 and ACE2 expression in ABCB5-positive limbal stem cells (LSCs) were assessed by RNAseq, flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry. PAX6, TMPRSS2, and ACE2 mRNA expression values were obtained from the GSE135455 and DRA002960 RNA-seq datasets. siRNA-mediated PAX6 knockdown (KD) was performed in limbal and conjunctival epithelial cells. TMPRSS2 and ACE2 expression in the PAX6 KD cells was analyzed by qRT-PCR and Western blot.

Results: We found that ABCB5-positive LSCs express high levels of TMPRSS2 and ACE2 compared to ABCB5-negative limbal epithelial cells. Mechanistically, gene knockout and overexpression models revealed that the eye transcription factor PAX6 negatively regulates TMPRSS2 expression. Therefore, low levels of PAX6 in ABCB5-positive LSCs promote TMPRSS2 expression, and high levels of TMPRSS2 and ACE2 expression by LSCs indicate enhanced susceptibility to SARS-CoV2 infection in this stem cell population.

Conclusions: Our study points to a need for COVID-19 testing of LSCs derived from donor corneas before transplantation to patients with limbal stem cell deficiency. Furthermore, our findings suggest that expandable human ABCB5+ LSC cultures might represent a relevant novel model system for studying cellular SARS-CoV2 viral entry mechanisms and evaluating related targeting strategies.

Keywords: ACE2; COVID-19; Limbal stem cells; PAX6; SARS-CoV2; TMPRSS2.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B
  • COVID-19 Testing
  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • RNA, Viral*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Stem Cells
  • Viral Proteins
  • Virus Internalization


  • ABCB5 protein, human
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B
  • RNA, Viral
  • Viral Proteins