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Exp Eye Res. 2003 Sep;77(3):339-46.

Epithelial transdifferentiation and cataract in the human lens.

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  • 1School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, NR4 7TJ, Norwich, UK.


Anterior subcapsular cataracts cause a serious loss of vision and are normally associated with ocular trauma, inflammation or clinical skin conditions. They appear to be accompanied by epithelial cell growth and transdifferentiation where unscheduled production of a number of proteins, including alpha smooth muscle actin (alpha-sma), occurs. Clinical studies have also revealed an up-regulation of the TGFbeta signalling pathway in such cataracts. The present study, using phase contrast and immunofluorescent techniques, was undertaken to investigate the extent of alpha-sma expression in traumatic cataracts, in capsulorhexis specimens obtained during cataract surgery and in aged human lenses from donor eyes. The donor lenses were also exposed to trauma or TGFbeta in culture to observe their relative contribution to alpha-sma production. Dense anterior subcapsular cataracts were relatively rare (<1%), but all showed a pronounced up-regulation of alpha-sma, which was located both in anterior cells of normal appearance and in nucleated fibroblastic cells lying beneath the anterior epithelium. Surprisingly, more than 50% of capsulorhexis specimens from mature cataracts showed expression of alpha-sma, although to a limited extent. Alpha-sma was not expressed in any of the clear donor lenses and culture for 8 days in EMEM did not induce expression. Interestingly, unlike their young animal counterparts, human lenses failed to show the presence of alpha-sma when exposed to 10 ng ml(-1) TGFbeta. However, after culture, lenses with pre-existing cortical opacities did express alpha-sma, as did clear lenses subjected to injury or trauma. It appears that the greater the stress, the greater is the expression of alpha-sma. Cataract, and especially cortical cataract, should therefore be seen as associated with stress-induced signalling pathways in the lens that lead to the transdifferentiation of the anterior epithelial cells.

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