Differential gene expression analysis of corneal endothelium indicates involvement of phagocytic activity in Fuchs’ endothelial corneal dystrophy

Abraham Kuot, Mark A. Corbett, Richard A. Mills, Grant Snibson, Steven Wiffen, Raymond Loh, Kathryn P. Burdon, Jamie E. Craig, Shiwani Sharma

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    Fuchs' endothelial corneal dystrophy (FECD) is a progressive vision impairing disease caused by thickening of Descemet's membrane and gradual degeneration and loss of corneal endothelial cells. The aim of this study was to identify differentially expressed genes between FECD-affected and unaffected corneal endothelium to gain insight into the pathophysiological mechanisms underlying this disease. Microarray gene expression analysis was performed on total RNA from FECD-affected and unaffected corneal endothelium-Descemet's membrane (CE-DM) specimens using the Illumina HumanHT-12 v4.0 expression array. RNA from pools of FECD-affected (n = 3 per pool) and individual unaffected (n = 3) specimens was used for comparison. Altered expression of a sub-set of differentially expressed genes was validated by quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) in independent specimens. Bioinformatics analysis was performed using InnateDB to reveal functional relationships among the differentially expressed genes and molecular pathways involved in the disease. A total of 16,513 genes were found expressed in the corneal endothelium of which 142 genes were differentially expressed between FECD-affected and unaffected endothelium (log2 fold-change ≥1.5, corrected p-value ≤0.05). Most of the genes were up-regulated (126) and a small proportion down-regulated (16) in affected corneal endothelium. Of the twelve genes prioritised for validation, differential expression of 10 genes, including those ranked 57th and 81st by significance validated by qRT-PCR (8 up-regulated and 2 downregulated, corrected p ≤ 0.05), one gene showed a trend for up-regulation in affected endothelium, consistent with the microarray analysis and another was up-regulated in an independent study indicating robustness of the differential expression dataset. Bioinformatic analysis revealed significant over-representation of differentially expressed genes in extracellular matrix reorganisation, cellular remodelling, immune response, and inflammation. Network analysis showed functional inter-relatedness of the majority of the dysregulated genes and revealed known direct functional relationships between 20 of the genes; many of these genes have roles in macrophage differentiation, phagocytosis and inflammation. This is the second report of microarray gene expression analysis in FECD. This study revealed a set of highly dysregulated genes in the corneal endothelium in FECD. More than a third of the dysregulated genes in the disease have been discovered for the first time and thus are novel. The dysregulated genes strongly suggest the presence of phagocytic cells, most likely immune cells, and inflammation in corneal endothelium in the disease. This study provides a molecular framework for delineating the mechanisms underlying these cellular processes in FECD.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number108692
    Number of pages10
    JournalExperimental Eye Research
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


    • Corneal endothelium
    • Differential gene expression
    • Fuchs' endothelial corneal dystrophy
    • InnateDB
    • Microarray analysis
    • Phagocytic activity
    • qRT-PCR


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