Adaptation of Homeostatic Ocular Surface Epithelium to Chronic Treatment With the Opioid Antagonist Naltrexone

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To determine how ocular surface epithelium adjusts to an increase in cell replication after treatment with the opioid antagonist naltrexone (NTX).


Adult male rats were given twice daily injections of 30 mg/kg NTX or vehicle for 7 days. Outcomes of NTX administration included DNA synthesis (monitored with BrdU), mitosis (assayed using colchicine), number of cell layers and cell diameter, apoptosis and necrosis, and packing density for the peripheral corneal epithelium, limbus, and conjunctiva. Also, transit time from basal to surface epithelial layers in the peripheral cornea was assessed with [3H]thymidine as a marker.


DNA synthesis and mitosis in the basal layer of the peripheral corneal epithelium of NTX-treated rats were increased 69% and 85%, respectively, from control levels; no changes in either parameter were recorded in the limbal or conjunctival epithelium (stem cell region). Epithelial thicknesses in the NTX group were increased by 8% to 38% from control subjects, without more cell layers. Packing density in NTX-treated rats was increased from control values by 26% in the basal layer of the limbus and by 12% to 28% in the suprabasal layers of the corneal epithelium, limbus, and conjunctiva. Epithelial cell diameters from corneas of NTX-exposed rats were subnormal in the basal and suprabasal cells of the limbus and conjunctiva. Apoptosis and necrosis were negligible in the epithelium of NTX-treated and control rats. Transit times of peripheral corneal epithelial cells of animals in the NTX group were shortened by 63% from control levels.


These data show that a 1-week treatment with NTX does not induce proliferative pathology or toxicity in ocular surface epithelium, has a minimal effect on stem cell proliferation, and accelerates normal homeostatic processes. Topical application of NTX for stimulation of corneal epithelial wound healing results in no adverse sequelae, thereby supporting the therapeutic role for this drug in the treatment of ocular surface abnormalities.

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