Epithelial basement membrane injury and regeneration modulates corneal fibrosis after pseudomonas corneal ulcers in rabbits
The purpose of this study was to investigate whether myofibroblast-related fibrosis (scarring) after microbial keratitis was modulated by the epithelial basement membrane (EBM) injury and regeneration. Rabbits were infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa after epithelial scrape injury and the resultant severe keratitis was treated with topical tobramycin. Corneas were analyzed from one to four months after keratitis with slit lamp photos, immunohistochemistry for alpha-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) and monocyte lineage marker CD11b, and transmission electron microscopy. At one month after keratitis, corneas had no detectible EBM lamina lucida or lamina densa, and the central stroma was packed with myofibroblasts that in some eyes extended to the posterior corneal surface with damage to Descemet's membrane and the endothelium. At one month, a nest of stromal cells in the midst of the SMA + myofibroblasts in the stroma that were CD11b+ may be fibrocyte precursors to myofibroblasts. At two to four months after keratitis, the EBM fully-regenerated and myofibroblasts disappeared from the anterior 60–90% of the stroma of all corneas, except for one four-month post-keratitis cornea where anterior myofibroblasts were still present in one localized pocket in the cornea. The organization of the stromal extracellular matrix also became less disorganized from two to four months after keratitis but remained abnormal compared to controls at the last time point. Myofibroblasts persisted in the posterior 10%–20% of posterior stroma even at four months after keratitis in the central cornea where Descemet's membrane and the endothelium were damaged. This study suggests that the EBM has a critical role in modulating myofibroblast development and fibrosis after keratitis—similar to the role of EBM in fibrosis after photorefractive keratectomy. Damage to EBM likely allows epithelium-derived transforming growth factor beta (TGFβ) to penetrate the stroma and drive development and persistence of myofibroblasts. Eventual repair of EBM leads to myofibroblast apoptosis when the cells are deprived of requisite TGFβ to maintain viability. The endothelium and Descemet's membrane may serve a similar function modulating TGFβ penetration into the posterior stroma—with the source of TGFβ likely being the aqueous humor.