Control of the Corneal Epithelial Stem/Progenitor Cell Niche

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Optometry and Vision Sciences


The corneal epithelium is vital for healthy vision and its malfunction owing to injury or disease leads to irreversible blindness. The epithelium is maintained by a population of slow-cycling adult stem/progenitor cells located at the edge of the cornea. These exist basally and within radial infoldings of the epithelial basement membrane. We hypothesise that cellular cross-talk and signals from the matrix help maintain the stem/progenitor cell niche. This is based on our discovery that specific sulphation motifs of chondroitin sulphate are putative biomarkers for articular cartilage progenitor cells (J Histochem Cytochem 2008;56:125-131). Pilot investigations of rabbit cornea support this concept and indicate that chondroitin sulphate is preferentially located next to the epithelial basal cells at the corneal periphery.
This studentship will comprise an in-depth investigation of the stem/progenitor cell niche at the edge of the cornea and in corneal cells in culture. Immunohistochemistry will be conducted using a battery of monoclonal antibodies developed in the Caterson laboratory against variously sulphated chondroitin sulphate epitopes. This will allow identification of matrix markers of the corneal stem/progenitor cell niche. Co-localisation with putative identifiers of stem/progenitor cells (CD-90, CD-105, p63 and Beta-catenin) will clarify specific co-associations between cells and their immediate environment in vivo and in vitro. Higher resolution imaging by immunoelectron microscopy with nanogold particles will distinguish cell surface-associated, or matrix-associated, localisation of the chondroitin sulphate biomarkers. Pilot studies of rabbit cornea have also provided tantalising evidence of what appear to be direct connections between fibroblasts and epithelial cells at the cornea's edge (Fig 2). This will be investigated at high magnification and in three-dimensions using the emerging technique of serial block face scanning electron microscopy to ascertainthe nature and extent of these proposed intercellular connections in, and away from, the niche. Finally, to identify the role of the stem/progenitor cell niche in corneal epithelial dysfunction, changes in the presence, distribution and sulphation specificity of chondroitin sulphate -- and of the pattern of cell-cell connections across the epithelial basement membrane -- will be investigated in tissue obtained postoperatively from eyes with corneal epithelial stem cell deficiencies, caused either by disease or chemical injury.
It is also intended that in the second year of study, the student will have a summer placement in the lab of the research collaborators in Kyoto, Japan.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M009122/1 01/10/2015 30/09/2023
1803680 Studentship BB/M009122/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2020 Greg Hammond
Description Contribution to Welsh eye care policy during Professional Internship Placement
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Description Continuing collaboration with KPUM 
Organisation Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine
Country Japan 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The School of Optometry and Vision Sciences at Cardiff University has enjoyed strong links with the Ophthalmology Department of Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine and this project has continued these links. We contributed to this collaboration by sending researchers to KPUM for short research placements and to present the Research Group's work to the Ophthalmology department.
Collaborator Contribution KPUM hosted me for three weeks to carry out research on their banked human tissue, including limbal stem cell deficient tissue, which we would not have access to in the UK.
Impact Added support to the Research Group's application to the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) for continued funding to support the collaboration.