Efficient Isolation and Functional Characterization of Niche Cells from Human Corneal Limbus
Naresh Polisetti, Lyne Sharaf, Ursula Schlötzer-Schrehardt, Günther Schlunck, Thomas Reinhard
University of Freiburg; University Hospital Erlangen
International Journal of Molecular Sciences
The fate decision of limbal epithelial progenitor cells (LEPC) at the human corneal limbus is determined by the surrounding microenvironment with limbal niche cells (LNC) as one of its essential components. Research on freshly isolated LNC which mainly include limbal mesenchymal stromal cells (LMSC) and limbal melanocytes (LM) has been hampered by a lack of efficient protocols to isolate and purify these cells. We devised a protocol for rapid retrieval of pure LMSC, LM and LEPC populations by collagenase digestion of limbal tissue and subsequent fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) using antibodies against CD90 and CD117. The sorted cells were characterized by immunophenotyping and functional assays. The effects of LMSC and LM on LEPC were studied in 3D co-cultures and LEPC differentiation status was assessed by immunohistochemistry. Enzymatic digestion and flow sorting yielded pure populations of LMSC (CD117-CD90+), LM (CD117+CD90-), and LEPC (CD117-CD90-). The LMSC exhibited self-renewal capacity (55.0 ± 4.6 population doublings), expressed mesenchymal stem cell markers (CD73, CD90, CD105, and CD44), and transdifferentiated to adipocytes, osteocytes, or chondrocytes. The LM exhibited self-renewal capacity and sustained melanin production. The sorted LEPC expressed epithelial progenitor markers (CK14, CK19, and CK15) and showed a colony-forming ability. Co-cultivation of LMSC and LM with LEPC resulted in a 4-5-layered stratified epithelium and supported the preservation of a LEPC phenotype, as reflected by increased p63+ and Ki67+ cells and decreased CK12+ cells compared with LEPC monocultures. A highly efficient isolation of pure LM, LMSC, and LEPC populations from a single preparation may allow for direct transcriptomic and proteomic profiling as well as functional studies on native unpassaged LNC, which can be considered as proper equivalents of LNC in vivo. The developed biomimetic 3D co-culture method could provide an experimental model for investigating the functional role of LNC in the limbal stem cell niche.