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Cornea. 2003 Aug;22(6):533-8.

Analysis of limbal stem cell deficiency by corneal impression cytology.

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  • 1Department of Pathology, General Hospital, Venezia, Italy.



The impaired function of corneal epithelial stem cells, located in the limbus, is responsible for corneal surface damage and is clinically characterized by recurrent epithelial defects, conjunctivalization, neovascularization, and corneal opacity. The aim of this study was to investigate corneal limbal stem cell deficiency (LSCD) by means of the impression cytology (IC) technique, using antibodies against cytokeratin 19 (CK19) and cytokeratin 3 (CK3), and to evaluate the diagnostic potential of this approach.


Over a 3-year period (October 1998-June 2001), we collected 113 pairs of IC samples from the eyes of 85 patients with a range of ocular surface diseases and performed an immunocytochemical analysis of CK19 and CK3. Samples with more than 50% cellularity were considered suitable for diagnostic purposes, while samples with less than 50% cellularity were considered with caution. CK19-positive cells in corneal IC were considered an expression of LSCD. We arbitrarily scored LSCD as mild (<25% of CK19-positive cells), moderate (25-50%), and severe (>50%).


One hundred thirteen pairs of IC specimens were obtained from 85 patients; 32 patients (37.6%) had alkaline burns, 18 (21.2%) had other chemical or physical corneal injuries, 13 (15.3%) had complications from wearing contact lenses, 8 (9.4%) had severe microbial keratitis, and 14 (16.5%) had suspicious limbal deficit due to other causes. Nine patients underwent bilateral sampling and 12 had to be resampled. Thirteen pairs of IC specimens were obtained during the follow-up of 8 patients who had undergone limbal stem cell transplantation. In 3 of these patients, IC confirmed reversion to corneal immunophenotype (CK3+/CK19-), whereas in 4, residual limbal damage was still evident; 1 patient relapsed. In the remaining 100 pairs of impressions, we found 77 cases of LSCD, whereas in 16 pairs, we did not find LSCD. Seven pairs were defined as "not valuable" because of the poor quality of both CK samples. Diffuse LSCD, moderate or severe in degree, was found in 26 of 32 patients (81.2%) with alkali burns, whereas mild diffuse LSCD or sectoral LSCD was found in 13 of 18 patients (72.2%) with other chemical-physical injuries, in 10 of 13 patients (76.9%) wearing contact lenses, in 7 of 8 patients (87.5%) with severe microbial keratitis, and in 12 of 14 patients (85.7%) with other corneal pathologies. The quality of impressions was assessed in 77 cases and found to be good or discrete for both CKs in 32 cases (41.5%) and poor in 45 (58.5%): in 46.7% of these cases, the IC was poor only for CK19 and in 45.4% only for CK3.


Immunocytochemistry for seeking out CK19- and CK3-positive cells on corneal IC is a simple and practical method to investigate LSCD. We believe that this technique could have an important role in evaluating patients undergoing therapeutic penetrating keratoplasty to select those who would benefit from limbal stem cell transplantation. Since sampling has been shown to be a critical point, we believe that any improvement in this area will also help to improve the methodology and will contribute to its wider utilization.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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