Defining the Physiologically Normal Coating and Pathological Deposit: An Analysis of Sulfur-Containing Moieties and Pellicle Thickness on Hydrogel Contact Lenses

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Historically, biochemical studies of the interaction between tears and hydrogel contact lenses have not been coordinated with the study of the morphological ultrastructure of the phenomena. Moreover, terms that have distinct and different meanings—pellicle, coating, deposit, and biofilm—have been used interchangeably and often incorrectly when applied within the context of the general field of contact lens biotechnology to describe the tear-polymer interaction. We describe our elucidation of morphological and elemental characteristics of the normal pellicle that forms on the lens surface and urge standard use of the word “pellicle” to specify this entity.


Fourteen worn hydrogel lenses (8 Group 1 and 6 Group 4 lenses according to the FDA classification) were rinsed, quartered, and fixed or dried, depending on the analysis to be performed. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) was used to examine the morphology of the pellicle and quantify its thickness. X-ray analysis was used to detect elements associated with the anterior, central, and posterior portions of the lenses and their relative distribution.


A distinctive morphological pellicle ranging from 0.1 to 8.6 µm was present on 12 of the 14 lenses. The pellicle was thicker on the Group 4 lenses than on the Group 1 lenses (P < 0.003). However, the pellicle on Group 1 lenses became thicker with increasing lens age (P < 0.02), but not as thick as on Group 4 lenses. Morphologically distinct lipid or jelly bump deposits were observed at the surface of both lenses from a single patient wearing 2 week old Group 4 lenses. Eleven lenses had sulfur-bearing tear components on the anterior zone. Sulfur was deposited within the matrix of nine lenses. The sulfur containing moieties were more prevalent on Group 4 lenses (P < 0.002). More sulfur was assayed on older lenses (P < 0.004). The anterior lens zone had more sulfur-bearing tear components than did the posterior or center zones (P < 0.05).


The physiologically normal pellicle is a distinct morphological entity covering the anterior lens surface. Abnormal deposits such as the discrete microgel region, known as jelly bumps, are not part of the physiologically normal pellicle at the anterior lens surface and have the potential to induce pathology. Sulfur-containing moieties within the matrix may represent the breakdown of large proteins and mucoproteins or intact proteins, as well as contaminants such as cosmetics and environmental pollutants. It is also possible that entire small proteins, such as lysozyme, impregnate the matrix. The moieties that become entrapped within the matrix or rigidly adhere to the matrix should be considered true deposits.

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