Wound healing corneal stem cells observed in real-time

17 December 2018
Research imagery on the cover of Stem Cell Reports
The cornea is the most frontal tissue of the eye, and its transparency is critical for vision.

The outermost layer protects against fluid loss, microbial invasion, ultraviolet radiation, and physical and chemical trauma

In a study led by Professor Nick Di Girolamo, researchers observed cell growth and movement following a corneal injury in real-time in live animals using minimally invasive microscopy platforms. The paper, titled “Visualizing the Contribution of Keratin-14+ Limbal Epithelial Precursors in Corneal Wound Healing” was the cover article for the January edition of Stem Cell Reports.

Visualizing the generation and maintenance of the corneal epithelium in a living organism, especially in real-time, is a challenging endeavour. In a study conducted in 2017, Professor Di Girolamo and his team used intra-vital microscopy, to observe the fate or destiny of epithelial stem cells in real-time, enabling an increased understanding of how the cornea develops and is maintained by specialised stem cells. These specialised stem cells are called limbal epithelial stem cells (LESCs). 

In the recent study, ‘Visualizing the Contribution of Keratin-14+ Limbal Epithelial Precursors in Corneal Wound Healing’, published in Stem Cell Reports, the team observed, using real-time imaging, how the LESCs behave following a corneal injury. The results challenge the original thought that corneal injuries resolve by leading-edge cells “sliding” or “rolling” into the wound bed. 

Rather, it was observed that corneal wounds initially heal by “basal cell migration”, whereby the increased number of LESC divisions, result in a driving force that propels basal cells toward the wound bed to seal the defect. Moreover, the authors, including Professor Stephanie Watson, were able to accurately measure cellular dynamics during wound closure. 

Click here to view video of Basal Cell Migration to Close Wound

These findings have profound implications for understanding the basic biology of the cornea and for devising new strategies to treat corneal diseases. Indeed, this study may inform researchers in the future, on how to best use limbal epithelial stem cells to regenerate the cornea following injury.

Authors Professors Nick Di Girolamo and Stephanie Watson are Chief Investigator’s at Stem Cells Australia and are both interested in using stem cells to restore sight in patients with severe corneal disease. As well as conducting research, Stephanie is a practising corneal surgeon at the Sydney Eye, Prince of Wales, and Sydney Children’s Hospitals; Nick is the Director of Ocular Diseases Research and Head, Mechanisms of Disease and Translational Research at the University of New South Wales.

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Read the research article.