To evaluate the biological functions of tissue-engineered human corneal epithelium (TE-HCEP) by corneal transplantation in limbal stem cell deficiency (LSCD) rabbit models.
TE-HCEPs were reconstructed with DiI-labeled untransfected HCEP cells and denuded amniotic membrane (dAM) in air-liquid interface culture, and their morphology and structure were characterized by hematoxylin-eosin (HE) staining of paraffin-sections, immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy. LSCD models were established by mechanical and alcohol treatment of the left eyes of New Zealand white rabbits, and their eyes were transplanted with TE-HCEPs with dAM surface outside by lamellar keratoplasty (LKP). Corneal transparency, neovascularization, thickness, and epithelial integrality of both traumatic and post transplantation eyes were checked once a week by slit-lamp corneal microscopy, a corneal pachymeter, and periodic acid-Schiff (PAS) staining. At day 120 post surgery, the rabbits in each group were sacrificed and their corneas were examined by DiI label observation, HE staining, immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy.
After cultured for 5 days on dAM, HCEP cells, maintaining keratin 3 expression, reconstructed a 6-7 layer TE-HCEP with normal morphology and structure. The traumatic rabbit corneas, entirely opaque, conjunctivalized and with invaded blood vessels, were used as LSCD models for TE-HCEP transplantation. After transplantation, obvious edema was not found in TE-HCEP-transplanted corneas which became more and more transparent, the invaded blood vessels reduced gradually throughout the monitoring period. The corneas decreased to normal thickness on day 25, while those of dAM eyes were over 575µm in thickness during the monitoring period. A 4-5 layer of epithelium consisting of TE-HCEP originated cells attached tightly to the anterior surface of stroma was reconstructed 120 days after TE-HCEP transplantation, which was similar to the normal control eye in morphology and structure. In contrast, intense corneal edema, turbid, invaded blood vessels were found in dAM eyes, and no multilayer epithelium was found but only a few scattered conjunctiva-like cells appeared.
The TE-HCEP, with similar morphology and structure to those of innate HCEP, could reconstruct a multilayer corneal epithelium with normal functions in restoring corneal transparency and thickness of LSCD rabbits after transplantation. It may be a promising HCEP equivalent for clinical therapy of corneal epithelial disorders.