Corneal tissue regeneration is of crucial importance for maintaining normal vision. We aimed to isolate and cultivate human corneal stroma-derived mesenchymal stem-like cells (CSMSCs) from the central part of cadaver corneas and study their phenotype, multipotency, role in immunity and wound healing. The isolated cells grew as monolayers in vitro, expressed mesenchymal- and stemness-related surface markers (CD73, CD90, CD105, CD140b), and were negative for hematopoietic markers as determined by flow cytometry. CSMSCs were able to differentiate in vitro into fat, bone and cartilage. Their gene expression profile was closer to bone marrow-derived MSCs (BMMSCs) than to limbal epithelial stem cells (LESC) as determined by high-throughput screening. The immunosuppressive properties of CSMSCs were confirmed by a mixed lymphocyte reaction (MLR), while they could inhibit proliferation of activated immune cells. Treatment of CSMSCs by pro-inflammatory cytokines and toll-like receptor ligands significantly increased the secreted interleukin-6 (IL-6), interleukin-8 (IL-8) and C-X-C motif chemokine 10 (CXCL-10) levels, as well as the cell surface adhesion molecules. CSMSCs were capable of closing a wound in vitro under different stimuli. These cells thus contribute to corneal tissue homeostasis and play an immunomodulatory and regenerative role with possible implications in future cell therapies for treating sight-threatening corneal diseases.
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