Corneal epithelial stem cells reside in the limbal area between the cornea and conjunctiva. We examined the potential use of limbal organoids as a source of transplantable limbal stem cells. After treating tissue with collagenase, limbal cells were seeded onto Matrigel and cultivated using limbal phenotype maintenance medium. After 1-month, approximately 500 organoids were formed from one donor cornea. Organoids derived from vertical sites (superior and inferior limbus) showed large colony forming efficiency, a higher ratio of slow cycling cells and N-cadherin-expressing epithelial cells compared to horizontal sites. The progenitor markers Keratin (K) 15 and p63 were expressed in epithelial sheets engineered form a single organoid. Organoids transplanted in the limbus of a rabbit limbal deficiency model confirmed the presence of organoid-derived cells extending on to host corneas by immunohistochemistry. Our data show that limbal organoids with a limbal phenotype can be maintained for up to 1 month in vitro which can each give rise to a fully stratified corneal epithelium complete with basal progenitor cells. Limbal organoids were successfully engrafted in vivo to provide epithelial cells in a rabbit limbal deficiency model, suggesting that organoids may be an efficient cell source for clinical use.
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