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Purpose: Ocular surface mucins and glycocalyx are critical for providing ocular hydration as well lubrication and repelling pathogens or allergens. Elevated levels of tear proinflammatory cytokines in dry eye may have detrimental effect on mucins and glycocalyx. The present study tested the effect of proinflammatory cytokines IL-6, TNF-α, and IFN-γ on membrane-tethered mucins expression, glycocalyx, and viability of ocular surface epithelial cells.

Methods: Stratified cultures of human corneal and conjunctival epithelial cells were exposed to different concentrations of IL-6, TNF-α, and IFN-γ for 24 hours. The mucins gene and protein expressions were quantified by real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). The glycocalyx was imaged using confocal microscopy after staining with Alexa 488-conjugated wheat germ agglutinin lectin. Apoptotic and necrotic cell death was quantified using flow cytometry.

Results: IL-6, TNF-α, and IFN-γ treatment resulted in a significant increase in mucins (MUC)1 and MUC4 gene and protein expression in human corneal epithelial cells but caused no significant changes in the levels of these mucins in conjunctival epithelial cells. Further, these cytokines decreased MUC16 expression in both corneal and conjunctival epithelial cells. Moreover, no notable change in glycocalyx or apoptotic cell death in corneal and conjunctival epithelial cells was noted with any of the tested cytokines, but IL-6 and TNF-α exposure increased necrotic cell death in corneal and conjunctival epithelial cells, respectively.

Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that proinflammatory cytokines have differential effects on human corneal and conjunctival epithelial cell mucins expression, but do not cause any damage to ocular surface epithelial cell glycocalyx.


This article was originally published in Translational Vision Science & Technology, volume 10, issue 7, in 2021.


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