Phenotypic characterization of the SIRC (Statens Seruminstitut Rabbit Cornea) cell line reveals a mixed epithelial and fibroblastic nature

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The aim of the present study was to investigate, in the Statens Seruminstitut Rabbit Cornea (SIRC) cell line, the presence of epithelial and fibroblastic markers, comparing their levels with those of the human Retinal Pigmented Epithelial (ARPE-19) cell line, and the Human Keratocyte (HK) cell line, respectively. SIRC cells, often described as of epithelial origin, are used as a corneal epithelial barrier model to study the permeability of ophthalmic drugs. However, they show a morphology that is more consistent with a fibroblastic cell phenotype, similar to corneal keratocytes. Our comparative analyses of cell type specific markers demonstrated that SIRC do not express cytokeratins 19 and 16 (typical of ARPE-19) and cytokeratin 9 (typical of HK); they do express cytokeratins 3 and 18 common to all three cell lines, and cytokeratin 12 typical of ARPE-19. Tight junction proteins were absent in HK, and lower in SIRC than in ARPE-19. All cell lines expressed the markers lumican and vimentin, with SIRC expressing intermediate levels between HK and ARPE-19; alpha-SMA was highly expressed in all lines. These markers, considered typical of fibroblasts, can be, however, expressed by epithelial cells during wound healing. These results might suggest that long-term in vitro cultivation of cell lines leads to a derangement of their specific phenotype, most likely due to genetic and epigenetic factors. This could be the reason why SIRC cells came to exhibit a hybrid nature between epithelial and fibroblastic cells.

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