Genetic manipulation of donor cornea prior to transplantation has the potential to modulate the allogeneic response, as well as the endothelial cell function. This study examined the feasibility of gene transfer to corneal endothelial cells using replication-defective recombinant adenoviral vectors. Adult rabbits corneas were infected with recombinant adenovirus RAd35, containing the Escherichia coli beta-galactosidase (lacZ) gene. Localization of gene transfer was assessed by histochemical staining for beta-galactosidase and recombinant protein production was quantified by a soluble assay. In initial experiments, the efficiency of gene transfer and kinetics of expression were studied ex vivo, using organ culture of transfected corneas. Following coculture of whole corneal fragments with RAd35, high levels of gene expression were evident on days 107, diminishing after that time. Gene transfer was found to be almost entirely restricted to corneal endothelial cells, with scattered expression in epithelial cells. Following these ex vivo studies, genetically modified corneas were transplanted as orthotopic allografts in rabbits. Similar kinetics of gene expression were seen after transplantation as in the ex vivo experiment, with maximal levels of gene expression in endothelial cells on days 1-4 after grafting. Corneal function following transplantation was not affected by the gene transfer, with the corneas attaining clarity within 1 day of grafting, and thereafter showing the expected thinning on ultrasonic pachymetry. In the absence of any immunosuppression, no inflammation was evident in graft recipient eyes, with the exception of allograft rejection in 1 animal 23 days after grafting. In this study we show that gene transfer to nonreplicating corneal endothelial cells is feasible using recombinant adenovirus vectors, and so may have potential application in the setting of corneal transplantation.