PURPOSE. To develop a serum-free mass culture system for mouse keratocytes. METHODS. Corneas of C57BL6/J mice were enzyme digested after the epithelium and endothelium were removed. Stromal cells were cultured in serum-free DMEM/F12 (1:1) containing epidermal growth factor (EGF), fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2), and B27 supplement. Primary spheres were dissociated by trypsin and subcultured as suspended secondary spheres. Cells from postnatal day (P)6 to P10 spheres were subcultured onto plastic dishes or type I collagen gels for phenotype analysis. The expression of the keratocyte markers keratocan, aldehyde dehydrogenase (Aldh), and CD34, were analyzed by RT-PCR, and vimentin and α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) were examined by immunocytochemistry. RESULTS. Primary keratocytes formed spheres, which were cultured for over 12 passages. Suspended sphere cells expressed vimentin, keratocan, CD34, and lumican, but were negative for cytokeratin K12 (K12) and Pax6. Sphere cells subcultured on plastic exhibited a dendritic morphology characteristic of keratocytes, and maintained keratocan, Aldh, and CD34 expression in serum-free medium. Sphere cells subcultured with 10% serum became fibroblastic, and expressed α-SMA when stimulated by transforming growth factor (TGF)-β. α-SMA-positive cells demonstrated contractile properties on collagen gels, compatible with the myofibroblast phenotype. CONCLUSIONS. The phenotype of mouse keratocytes can be maintained in vitro for more than 12 passages by the serum-free sphere culturing technique.
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