PURPOSE: To investigate the effect of host immunity (allospecific) and surgical manipulation (non-allospecific) on corneal endothelial cells (CECs) in corneal transplantation.
METHODS: Draining lymph nodes and grafted C57BL/6 corneas were harvested from syngeneic recipients, allograft acceptors, and allograft rejectors (BALB/c) 1, 3, and 8 weeks after transplantation. We analyzed CEC apoptosis using an ex vivo cornea-in-the-cup assay, and visualized cell-to-cell junctions using immunohistochemical staining (ZO-1). Automatic cell analysis using Confoscan software was used to measure CEC density as well as changes in CEC morphology by quantifying the coefficient of variation in cell size (polymegethism) and shape (pleomorphism).
RESULTS: The cornea-in-the-cup assay showed that allogeneic acceptor T cells and to an even greater extent rejector T cells (but not syngeneic T cells) induced CEC apoptosis. CEC density after corneal transplantation was significantly reduced in allogeneic acceptors compared with syngeneic grafts (P<0.001), and CEC density was even further reduced in the allo-rejector group compared with the allo-acceptor group. Allogeneic grafts showed a greater increase in the coefficient of variation in cell size (polymegethism) when compared with syngeneic grafts 1 week after transplantation (P=P<0.001). However, pleomorphism was not significantly different between syngeneic and allo-acceptor grafts, indicating that polymegethism (but not pleomorphism or cell density) is a sensitive indicator of the effect of alloimmunity on CECs.
CONCLUSIONS: Our data demonstrate that host alloimmunity rather than surgical manipulation alone is the major cause of CEC damage in corneal transplantation, and such morphologic changes of CECs can be detected before the clinically visible onset of allograft rejection.