Purpose: To describe and evaluate retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cell transdifferentiation in vitro and to determine its importance to the development of proliferative vitreoretinal disorders.
Methods: Porcine RPE cells from single animals were examined at different passages in culture. The authors examined cellular morphology, contraction of a collagenous matrix, and adhesion to fibronectin and type I collagen-coated substrata. These activities were correlated with loss of epithelial characteristics, redistribution of the actin cytoskeleton, and expression of alpha-smooth muscle actin (alpha-SMA), a marker of myoid differentiation.
Results: During routine culture on tissue culture plastic, porcine RPE cells lose epithelial characteristics and acquire a mesenchymal cell-like phenotype. The ability of cultured porcine RPE cells to adhere to and exert tractional forces on an extracellular matrix increases with continued passage in vitro and transdifferentiation. This correlates with the loss of the differentiated epithelial morphology, decreased expression of the epithelial marker cytokeratin 18, redistribution of the actin cytoskeleton, and de novo expression of alpha-SMA.
Conclusion: Results indicate that RPE transdifferentiate in culture and that this transition is accompanied by a shift in biologic activities. Therefore, morphologic and behavioral transdifferentiation of these cells in culture are influencing factors in experimental pathology. The potential relevance of these extensive changes to the biology of proliferative vitreoretinal disorders is discussed.