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Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2007 Aug;48(8):3586-93.

Hypoxia enhances the expansion of human limbal epithelial progenitor cells in vitro.

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Department of Ophthalmology, Keio University School of Medicine, Tokyo, Japan.



To demonstrate the effects of hypoxia on proliferation and differentiation of human limbal epithelial cells in vitro.


Primary human limbal epithelial cells were harvested from the rim of donor corneas. Colony-forming efficiency (CFE) and cell proliferation were observed in standard (20% O(2)) or hypoxic (2% O(2)) culture conditions. Cell cycle, forward scatter (FSC) and side scatter (SCC) of cells were analyzed by flow cytometry. Proliferating cells were also observed by pulse labeling (2 hours) with BrdU and Ki67 staining. Apoptosis was detected by TUNEL assay. Isolated colonies were examined by immunohistochemistry against K15, p63, involucrin, and K3. Involucrin expression was also analyzed by Western blot analysis.


Both CFE and proliferation of limbal epithelial cells was significantly enhanced in hypoxia. Flow cytometry revealed a higher fraction of hypoxic cells in the G(0)/G(1)-phase and fewer cells in the S-phase, compared with normoxia. However, there was no difference in the uptake of BrdU during a 2-hour pulse, suggesting that hypoxic colonies contained rapidly cycling cells. Apoptotic cells were sparse in both groups, and hypoxic cells showed lower FSC compared with normoxic cells. Although there was no difference in the staining pattern of K15, p63, and Ki67, cells cultivated in normoxia expressed higher levels of the differentiation markers involucrin and K3. Significantly higher involucrin expression was also observed by Western blot.


Hypoxic culture (2%) enhances proliferation while inhibiting differentiation of limbal epithelial cells in vitro.

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