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Mol Vis. 2012;18:547-64. Epub 2012 Mar 2.

Potential of human umbilical cord blood mesenchymal stem cells to heal damaged corneal endothelium.

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  • 1Schepens Eye Research Institute, Boston, MA 02114, USA.



To test the feasibility of altering the phenotype of umbilical cord blood mesenchymal stem cells (UCB MSCs) toward that of human corneal endothelial cells (HCEC) and to determine whether UCB MSCs can "home" to sites of corneal endothelial cell injury using an ex vivo corneal wound model.


RNA was isolated and purified from UCB MSCs and HCECs. Baseline information regarding the relative gene expression of UCB MSCs and HCEC was obtained by microarray analysis. Quantitative real-time PCR (q-PCR) verified the microarray findings for a subset of genes. The ability of different culture media to direct UCB MSCs toward a more HCEC-like phenotype was tested in both tissue culture and ex vivo corneal endothelial wound models using three different media: MSC basal medium (MSCBM), a basal medium used to culture lens epithelial cells (LECBM), or lens epithelial cell-conditioned medium (LECCM). Morphology of the MSCs was observed by phase-contrast microscopy or by light microscopic observation of crystal violet-stained cells. Immunolocalization of the junction-associated proteins, zonula occludins-1 (ZO1) and N-cadherin, was visualized by fluorescence confocal microscopy. Formation of cell-cell junctions was tested by treatment with the calcium chelator, EGTA. A second microarray analysis compared gene expression between UCB MSCs grown in LECBM and LECCM to identify changes induced by the lens epithelial cell-conditioned culture medium. The ability of UCB MSCs to "home" to areas of endothelial injury was determined using ZO1 immunolocalization patterns in ex vivo corneal endothelial wounds.


Baseline microarray analysis provided information regarding relative gene expression in UCB MSCs and HCECs. MSCs attached to damaged, but not intact, corneal endothelium in ex vivo corneal wounds. The morphology of MSCs was consistently altered when cells were grown in the presence of LECCM. In tissue culture and in ex vivo corneal wounds, UCB MSC treated with LECCM were elongated and formed parallel sheets of closely apposed cells. In both tissue culture and ex vivo corneal endothelial wounds, ZO1 and N-cadherin localized mainly to the cytoplasm of UCB MSCs in the presence of MSCBM. However, both proteins localized to cell borders when UCB MSCs were grown in either LECBM or LECCM. This localization was lost when extracellular calcium levels were reduced by treatment with EGTA. A second microarray analysis showed that, when UCB MSCs were grown in LECCM instead of LECBM, the relative expression of a subset of genes markedly differed, suggestive of a more HCEC-like phenotype.


Results indicate that UCB MSCs are able to "home" to areas of injured corneal endothelium and that the phenotype of UCB MSCs can be altered toward that of HCEC-like cells. Further study is needed to identify the specific microenvironmental conditions that would permit tissue engineering of UCB MSCs to replace damaged or diseased corneal endothelium.

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