Desmin deficiency is not sufficient to prevent corneal fibrosis

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The type III intermediate filament (IF) proteins vimentin and desmin are sequentially overexpressed in stromal myofibroblasts over the period when fibrosis sets in after corneal injury. Prior findings have revealed vimentin-deficient mice are significantly protected from corneal fibrosis after alkali injury, which has implicated this IF protein as an important regulator of corneal fibrosis. It has remained as yet unproven whether desmin contributes in any significant manner to corneal fibrosis. Here we have employed desmin-deficient (Des KO) mice in the corneal alkali injury model and show that injured Des KO mice develop fibrosis and show similar levels of corneal opacity at 14 days post-injury as wild type (WT) mice and retain this phenotype even at 30d post injury. Des KO corneas from injured mice show upregulation of vimentin and alpha-smooth muscle actin expression to equivalent levels as WT corneas, illuminating that desmin deficiency does not interfere with myofibrobast differentiation. Employing the small molecule withaferin A (WFA), an inhibitor of vimentin, we show that WFA treatment causes the decrease in steady state levels of vimentin and serine 38 phosphorylated vimentin, the latter a biomarker associated with corneal fibrosis, and improved corneal clarity through blockade of myofibroblast differentiation. To investigate further the mechanism of fibrosis in desmin deficiency, we examined keratin 8 expression in the epithelium, and found reduced levels of this cytokeratin in injured Des KO corneas compared to WT corneas. This finding also corroborates the decrease of cell proliferation in injured Des KO corneas compared to that in WT corneas. The fibrotic phenotype of Des KO corneas also features abundant vascularization, further exemplifying the magnitude of corneal pathology. Together, these findings illuminate that desmin does not contribute significantly to corneal fibrosis in this injury model.HighlightsCorneal fibrosis occurs in desmin deficiency.Similar high levels of serine-38 phosphorylated vimentin are produced in injured wild type and desmin deficient corneas.Desmin deficient corneas when injured show reduced epithelial cell proliferation compared to wild type mice.Desmin deficient corneas when injured have lower levels of keratin K8 compared to wild type mice.Withaferin A targets vimentin and downregulates corneal fibrosis in desmin deficient mice.

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