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Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2011 Jul 1;52(7):4734-41. doi: 10.1167/iovs.10-6486.

Wnt/β-catenin signaling regulates proliferation of human cornea epithelial stem/progenitor cells.

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  • 1Cornea and Uveitis Division, Jules Stein Eye Institute, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA.



To investigate the expression and role of the Wnt signaling pathway in human limbal stem cells (LSCs).


Total RNA was isolated from the human limbus and central cornea. Limbal or cornea-specific transcripts were identified through quantitative real-time PCR. Protein expression of Wnt molecules was confirmed by immunohistochemistry on human ocular tissue. Activation of Wnt signaling using lithium chloride was achieved in vitro and its effects on LSC differentiation and proliferation were evaluated.


Expression of Wnt2, Wnt6, Wnt11, Wnt16b, and four Wnt inhibitors were specific to the limbal region, whereas Wnt3, Wnt7a, Wnt7b, and Wnt10a were upregulated in the central cornea. Nuclear localization of β-catenin was observed in a very small subset of basal epithelial cells only at the limbus. Activation of Wnt/β-catenin signaling increased the proliferation and colony-forming efficiency of primary human LSCs. The stem cell phenotype was maintained, as shown by higher expression levels of putative corneal epithelial stem cell markers, ATP-binding cassette family G2 and ΔNp63α, and low expression levels of mature cornea epithelial cell marker, cytokeratin 12.


These findings demonstrate for the first time that Wnt signaling is present in the ocular surface epithelium and plays an important role in the regulation of LSC proliferation. Modulation of Wnt signaling could be of clinical application to increase the efficiency of ex vivo expansion of corneal epithelial stem/progenitor cells for transplantation.

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