Biomechanical changes to Descemet's membrane precede endothelial cell loss in an early-onset murine model of Fuchs endothelial corneal dystrophy

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Early-onset Fuchs endothelial corneal dystrophy (FECD) has been associated with nonsynonymous mutations in collagen VIII α2 (COL8A2), a key extracellular matrix (ECM) protein in Descemet's membrane (DM). Two knock-in strains of mice have been generated to each express a mutant COL8A2 protein (Col8a2L450W/L450W and Col8a2Q455K/Q455K) that recapitulate the clinical phenotype of early-onset FECD including endothelial cell loss, cellular polymegathism and pleomorphism, and guttae. Due to abnormalities in ECM protein composition and structure in FECD, the stiffness of DM in Col8a2 knock-in mice and wildtype (WT) controls was measured using atomic force microscopy at 5 and 10 months of age, coinciding with the onset of FECD phenotypic abnormalities. At 5 months, only sporadic guttae were identified via in vivo confocal microscopy (IVCM) in Col8a2Q455K/Q455K mice, otherwise both strains of Col8a2 transgenic mice were indistinguishable from WT controls in terms of endothelial cell density and size. By 10 months of age, Col8a2L450W/L450W and Col8a2Q455K/Q455K mice developed reduced corneal endothelial density, increased endothelial cell area and guttae, with the Col8a2Q455K/Q455K strain exhibiting a more severe phenotype. However, at 5 months of age, prior to the development endothelial cell abnormalities, Col8a2L450W/L450W and Col8a2Q455K/Q455K mice knock-in mice had reduced tissue stiffness of DM that was statistically significant in the Col8a2Q455K/Q455K mice when compared with wildtype controls. These data indicate that alterations in the tissue compliance of DM precede phenotypic changes in endothelial cell count and morphology, and may play a role in onset and progression of FECD.

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