Chemical and topographical effects on cell differentiation and matrix elasticity in a corneal stromal layer model

Control and maintenance of the keratocyte phenotype is vital to developing in vitro tissue engineered strategies for corneal repair. In this study the influence of topographical and chemical cues on the mechanical, phenotypical and genotypical behaviour of adult human derived corneal stromal (AHDCS) cells in three dimensional (3D) multi-layered organised constructs is examined. Topographical cues are provided via multiple aligned electrospun nanofiber meshes, which are arranged orthogonally throughout the constructs and are capable of aligning individual cells and permitting cell migration between the layers. The influence of chemical cues is examined using different supplements in culture media. A non-destructive indentation technique and optical coherence tomography are used to determine the matrix elasiticity (elastic modulus) and dimensional changes, respectively. These measurements were indicative of changes in cell phenotype from contractile fibroblasts to quiescent keratocytes over the duration of the experiment and corroborated by qPCR. Constructs containing nanofibers have a higher initial modulus, reduced contraction and organised cell orientation compared to those without nanofibers. Cell-seeded constructs cultured in serum-containing media increased in modulus throughout the culture period and underwent significantly more contraction than constructs cultured in serum-free and insulin-containing media. This implies that the growth factors present in serum promote a fibroblast-like phenotype; qPCR data further validates these observations. These results indicate that the synergistic effect of nanofibers and serum-free media plus insulin supplementation provide the most suitable topographical and chemical environment for reverting corneal fibroblasts to a keratocyte phenotype in a 3D construct.