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Keywords:

  • Stem cell;
  • Neural crest;
  • Cornea;
  • Cell-based therapy;
  • Bioengineering

Abstract

The cornea is a tough transparent tissue admitting and focusing light in the eye. More than 90% of the cornea is stroma, a highly organized, transparent connective tissue maintained by keratocytes, quiescent mesenchymal cells of neural crest origin. A small population of cells in the mammalian stroma displays properties of mesenchymal stem cells, including clonal growth, multipotent differentiation, and expression of an array of stem cell-specific markers. Unlike keratocytes, the corneal stromal stem cells (CSSCs) undergo extensive expansion in vitro without loss of the ability to adopt a keratocyte phenotype. Several lines of evidence suggest CSSCs to be of neural crest lineage and not from bone marrow. CSSCs are localized in the anterior peripheral (limbal) stroma near to stem cells of the corneal epithelium. CSSCs may function to support potency of the epithelial stem cells in their unique limbal niche. On the other hand, little information is available documenting a role for CSSCs in vivo in stromal wound healing or regeneration. In vitro CSSCs reproduce the highly organized connective tissue of the stroma, demonstrating a potential use of these cells in tissue bioengineering. Direct introduction of CSSCs into the corneal stroma generated transparent tissue in a mouse model of corneal opacity. Human CSSCs injected into mice corneas did not elicit immune rejection over an extended period of time. The CSSCs therefore appear offer an opportunity to develop cell- and tissue-based therapies for irreversible corneal blindness, conditions affecting more than 10 million individuals worldwide. STEM CELLS2012;30:1059–1063