Imaging of conjunctival goblet cells helps diagnosis of dry eyes

December 05, 2019

Goblet cells are epithelial cells that produce mucins and disperse tears which help the surface of eyes maintain the wet environment. Goblet cells are closely related to autoimmune disease including dry eyes and chemical burns. Therefore, it is very important to examine the status of goblet cells to better understand and diagnose ocular disease.

Professor Ki Hean Kim and Mr. Seonghan Kim of POSTECH Department of Mechanical Engineering and Division of Integrative Biosciences and Biotechnology collaborated with Dr. Myoung Joon Kim, who is a former ophthalmology professor at Seoul Asan Medical Center and a doctor at Renew Seoul Eye Center, in finding a better technique goblet cells assessment and they successfully developed an imaging technology of conjunctival goblet cells with high definition and high image contrast.

The current standard imaging method of goblet cells is impression cytology. This method uses polymer paper attached onto the conjunctiva to extract conjunctival goblet cells and these cells are examined under the microscope after labeling them with special dying agent. However, it is rarely used because the process is very complicated and it can damage the surface of conjunctiva.

In the meanwhile, there has been a report on using confocal reflection microscopy (CRM) to image conjunctival goblet cells. The assessment is non-invasive, yet, it provides relatively low image contrast and, is hard to obtain precise results.

In an effort of developing a better imaging method, the research team has studied a clinically compatible cell image technique using fluoroquinolone antibiotics, which are used in eye drops, as fluorescent cell labeling agents. As a result, moxifloxacin, one of the fluoroquinolone antibodies used in eye drops, displayed stronger fluorescence in the goblet cells that are dispersed on the surface of conjunctiva.

Also, the moxifloxacin-based fluorescence imaging of conjunctival goblet cells was tested in a mouse model. Moxifloxacin was injected into a mouse and it was examined under the CRM after one to two minutes of injection. The team verified that a bright cluster of conjunctival goblet cells on the surface of conjunctiva was shown. In comparison with the existing CRM, this fluorescence imaging method demonstrated high image contrast and could do real-time imaging at 10 frames per second.

This newly developed high-contrast conjunctival goblet cells imaging is the world's first of its kind as it uses the antibiotics safely applied in ophthalmology nowadays. Thus, it can be used to develop diagnostic medical devices. Furthermore, it can be utilized in precision diagnosis of dry eye syndromes and evaluation of treatment effect.

Professor Ki Hean Kim explained about his future plans, "This study is meaningful that it overcame the limitation of the conventional imaging method of conjunctival goblet cells. It creatively introduced a non-invasive and high-definition imaging method. We will further advance this imaging method to an assessment of conjunctival goblet cells. We hope to invent a medical device using this method which then can be applied to precision diagnosis of dry eye syndrome and their treatment effect evaluation."
The research was financially supported in parts by Korea-Sweden Research Cooperation Program of the National Research Foundation funded by the Korean Government and the Brain Research Program through the National Research Foundation of Korea funded by the Ministry of Science, ICT & Future Planning.

Pohang University of Science & Technology (POSTECH)

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