Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), via activation of Wnt signaling, is prevailing in embryogenesis, but postnatally it only occurs in pathological processes, such as in tissue fibrosis and tumor metastasis. Our prior studies led us to speculate that EMT might be involved in the loss of limbal epithelial stem cells in explant cultures. To examine this hypothesis, we successfully grew murine corneal/limbal epithelial progenitors by prolonging the culture time and by seeding at a low density in a serum-free medium. Single cell-derived clonal growth was accompanied by a gradient of Wnt signaling activity, from the center to the periphery, marked by a centrifugal loss of E-cadherin and β-catenin from intercellular junctions, coupled with nuclear translocation of β-catenin and LEF-1. Large-colony-forming efficiency at central location of colony was higher than peripheral location. Importantly, there was also progressive centrifugal differentiation, with positive K14 keratin expression and the loss of p63 and PCNA nuclear staining, and irreversible EMT, evidenced by cytoplasmic expression of α-SMA and nuclear localization of S100A4; and by nuclear translocation of Smad4. Furthermore, cytoplasmic expression of α-SMA was promoted by high-density cultures and their conditioned media, which contained cell density-dependent levels of TGF-β1, TGF-β2, GM-CSF, and IL-1α. Exogenous TGF-β1 induced α-SMA positive cells in a low-density culture, while TGF-β1 neutralizing antibody partially inhibited α-SMA expression in a high-density culture. Collectively, these results indicate that irreversible EMT emerges in the periphery of clonal expansion where differentiation and senescence of murine corneal/limbal epithelial progenitors occurs as a result of Smad-mediated TGF-β-signaling.
ASJC Scopus subject areas