Background. Modification of a donor cornea by gene therapy ex vivo has potential to modulate irreversible rejection, the major cause of corneal graft failure. Our aim was to transfer the gene encoding mammalian IL-10 to ovine donor corneas and to determine subsequent orthotopic corneal allograft survival in an outbred sheep model. Methods. The replicative capacity of ovine corneal endothelium was determined by autoradiography after deliberate injury. A replication-defective adenovirus was used to deliver the lacZ reporter gene to ovine corneas and transfected corneas were organ-cultured in vitro to allow transfection efficiency, duration of reporter gene expression, and toxicity attributable to the vector to be determined. A cDNA encoding full-length ovine IL-10 was cloned into an adenoviral vector that was used to transfect donor corneas ex vivo before transplantation. Orthotopic penetrating corneal transplantation was performed in outbred sheep. Results. Sheep corneal endothelium was found to be essentially amitotic. Transfection of > 70% corneal endothelial cells was achieved with the viral vector and expression was maintained for 28 days in vitro. IL-10 mRNA was detectable in transfected, organ-cultured corneas for 21 days in vitro. Donor corneas transfected with cDNA encoding IL-10 showed significantly prolonged survival after penetrating keratoplasty (median 55 days, range 19 ≥300 days) compared with control corneas (median 20.5 days, range 18-32 days, P=0.011). Conclusion. Local gene therapy-mediated expression of the immunomodulatory cytokine IL-10 has the potential to reduce the incidence of corneal graft rejection and to prolong corneal allograft survival.
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