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FASEB J. 2005 Aug;19(10):1371-3. Epub 2005 May 18.

PAX6 expression identifies progenitor cells for corneal keratocytes.

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  • 1Department of Ophthalmology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA .


Keratocytes of the corneal stroma produce a transparent extracellular matrix required for vision. During wound-healing and in vitro, keratocytes proliferate, becoming fibroblastic, and lose biosynthesis of unique corneal matrix components. This study sought identification of cells in the corneal stroma capable of assuming a keratocyte phenotype after extensive proliferation. About 3% of freshly isolated bovine stromal cells exhibited clonal growth. In low-mitogen media, selected clonal cultures displayed dendritic morphology and expressed high levels of keratan sulfate, aldehyde dehydrogenase 3A1, and keratocan, molecular markers of keratocyte phenotype. In protein-free media, both primary keratocytes and selected clonal cells aggregated to form attachment-independent spheroids expressing elevated levels of those marker molecules. The selected clonal cells exhibited normal karyotype and underwent replicative senescence after 65-70 population doublings; however, they continued expression of keratocyte phenotypic markers throughout their replicative life span. The progenitor cells expressed elevated mRNA for several genes characteristic of stem cells and also for genes expressed during ocular development PAX6, Six2, and Six3. PAX6 protein was detected in the cultured progenitor cells and a small number of stromal cells in intact tissue but was absent in cultured keratocytes and fibroblasts. Cytometry demonstrated PAX6 protein in 4% of freshly isolated stromal cells. These results demonstrate the presence of a previously unrecognized population of PAX6-positive cells in adult corneal stroma that maintain the potential to assume a keratocyte phenotype even after extensive replication. The presence of such progenitor cells has implications for corneal biology and for cell-based therapies targeting corneal scarring.

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