Eye-solating corneal innervation profiles to examine epithelial wound healing in a model of type II diabetes
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INTRODUCTION: The cornea forms the anterior-most barrier of the eye, consisting of a non-keratinized pseudostratified squamous epithelium, a collagen-based stroma, and an endothelium. It is completely avascular, yet the most densely innervated structure in the human body. The sensory nerves project from the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal cranial nerve into the limbal/stromal interface. From there, the nerves branch and ascend into Bowman’s membrane, a basal lamina delineating the epithelium from the stroma, and project into the epithelium as free nerve endings. Injury to the corneal epithelium can potentially lead to impaired vision if the wound healing process is not properly initiated. Immediately after injury, nucleotides such as ATP are released and bind to purinergic receptors known to be located in epithelial cell membranes, thereby initiating epithelial cell migration to close the wound. Malfunctions in the interactions between the corneal nerves and their epithelial counterparts during the wound healing process are thought to contribute to the attenuated wound healing characteristic of diabetes. However, the precise nature of these interactions, how they facilitate wound healing, and how they are impaired in diabetes, is not well understood. OBJECTIVES: Previously, our lab has shown that a member of purinergic family receptors (P2X7) is localized in the basal epithelial cells and becomes relocated to the leading edge of the wound after injury. When the relocation is inhibited, migration is attenuated. Additionally, it is known that diabetic mouse models display slower wound healing rates. The present study has three aims: (1) to replicate the characteristic sub-basal whorl organization of the corneal nerves in organ-cultured corneas; (2) to elucidate the connections between patterns of corneal innervation and purinergic receptor expression; and (3) to understand how these patterns interact to facilitate normal wound healing and how these interactions are disrupted in a diabetic model. METHODS: Our approach was to use immunohistochemistry of dissected mouse and to visualize the tissue using confocal microscopy. Sensory innervation profiles from diet induced obesity (DIO) mouse corneas and their wildtype C57Bl6 counterparts were compared in unwounded and wounded tissue. To image the nerves a methanol fixation protocol was optimized to examine the sub-basal plexus and the apical nerves. Corneas were dissected, stained with beta III-tubulin, which identifies nerves, and with an antibody to the P2X7 purinergic receptor, which is expressed in the epithelium and nerves. Trephine induced epithelial abrasion injuries were made on separate DIO and control models to compare re-epithelialization and re-innervation between the diseased and healthy states. Corneas were imaged using a Zeiss LSM 700 laser scanning confocal microscope and optical images were taken through the cornea over a distance averaging 115 microns. Corneas were imaged using a macro tiling plugin, stitching 3x3 optical z-stacks into composite images. The 3x3 tiles were created to image the central whorl, as well as the peripheral nerve fibers. Co-localization of P2X7 and betaIII tubulin were determined by thresholding using ImageJ/FIJI software. RESULTS: The elegant organization of the centralized sub-basal whorl of the control mouse was disrupted in the DIO mouse cornea, appearing fragmented and incomplete. Analysis of 7.5 and 15 wk corneas showed the whorl to be present at 7.5 wks. Average apical nerve fiber projection length was decreased in DIO cornea. Yet, analyses at each epithelial layer demonstrated overall increased apical nerve density in the DIO corneas as compared to control while sub-basal nerve density decreased dramatically. Stromal nerves remained equivalent. P2X7 did co-localize to the large stromal nerve fibers but it was difficult to show the localization along the sub-basal nerve plexus. However in cross-section images, P2X7 displayed an intracellular polarity, and was present along the apical surface of the columnar basal epithelial cells lining the basement membrane. This localization may suggest the presence of P2X7 expressing sensory nerves, which may be ideally poised for communication with the basal cells after injury. CONCLUSIONS: These data support the hypothesis that there is indeed a difference between diabetic and control corneal innervation. While wound healing differences due to the interaction between sensory nerves and the localization of P2X7 in epithelium at the leading edge remain to be fully elucidated, the novel finding of P2X7 expression in corneal nerves confirms a potential role of purinergic receptor and nerve coordination in conducting the wound healing response.