Alterations in Corneal Self-Healing Process Observed in Dry Eye Disease

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Dry eye disease patients are more susceptible to corneal injuries than people with healthy eyes. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis studied mice and found that stem cells can produce proteins that help regenerate corneas. These proteins may provide new treatment options for such injuries.

The study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 2.

When the eye cannot produce enough natural tears to lubricate it, dry eye disease can occur. Dry eye disease is a common condition that causes people to use different types of drops to keep their eyes lubricated and replace the missing natural tears. However, when the cornea becomes dry, it can be more vulnerable to injury.

Rajendra S. Apte MD, Ph.D. is the Paul A. CIbis Distinguished Professor at the John F. Hardesty MD Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences. In this study, which involved genes important for eye health and identified potential treatment targets that appeared different in dry eyes compared to healthy eyes. Dry eye disease is a serious condition that affects millions of people worldwide, including 15 million Americans. By targeting these proteins we can treat or prevent eye pain, blurred vision, and other symptoms.

Researchers analyzed genes expressed in the cornea of several mouse models, not only to study dry eye disease, but also diabetes and other conditions. In mice with dry eyes, the cornea activated expression of the SPARC gene. The researchers also discovered that higher levels SPARC protein are associated with improved healing.

Joseph B. Lin is a MD/PhD student in Apte’s lab. He said, “We performed single-cell sequencing to identify important genes to maintain the health of cornea. We believe that some of them, especially SPARC, could provide potential therapeutic targets to treat dry eye disease and corneal injuries.”

Apte said that these stem cells were important and resilient, and are a major reason why corneal transplantation is so successful. If the proteins we identified do not work as therapies to activate cells in people suffering from dry eye syndrome we may be able even to transplant engineered limbal cells to prevent corneal damage in patients with dried eyes.

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