• cathepsin D;
  • cathepsin E;
  • desmosome;
  • epidermal desquamation;
  • immunocytochemistry;
  • stratum corneum


Background  We previously reported that an ambient aspartic proteinase is crucial to desquamation of the stratum corneum at pH 5. Identification of this aspartic proteinase by using enzyme inhibitors suggested it to be cathepsin D, although we could not exclude cathepsin E.

Objectives  To determine the identity of this aspartic proteinase and its distribution within the stratum corneum.

Methods  We measured enzyme activities of cathepsin D and cathepsin E in the salt and detergent extracts from callus stratum corneum, using a fluorogenic peptide as a substrate and comparing the effect of addition of Ascaris pepsin inhibitor (specific for cathepsin E) with that of pepstatin A (which inhibits both cathepsin D and cathepsin E). Both enzymes were then extracted and purified from plantar stratum corneum samples and identified by Western blotting. Immunofluorescence microscopy was used to investigate the localization of proteinases within human plantar stratum corneum sample sections.

Results  We found that 20% of total aspartic proteinase activity could be attributed to cathepsin E, the remainder to cathepsin D. Two subunits of cathepsin D were identified, a mature active form at 33 kDa and an intermediate active form at 48 kDa; cathepsin E was also identified at 48 kDa, although in a stained band 10-fold weaker in the immunoblot. Immunofluorescence microscopy showed the antibody to cathepsin D to be localized in the lipid envelopes of the stratum corneum, whereas that to cathepsin E stained the tissue diffusely. The labelling for cathepsin D was similar to that observed for desmosomes, and immunoelectron microscopy confirmed that cathepsin D was present on desmosomes. On the other hand, cathepsin E occurred intracellularly within the squames.

Conclusions  We conclude that cathepsin D, and not cathepsin E, causes desquamation by degrading desmosomes.