The functional role of Langerhans cells (LCs) in ocular surface inflammation and nerve damage in dry eye (DE) disease has yet to be determined. This study was performed to investigate this relationship through both clinical study on DE patients and in vivo mouse models with induced DE disease. In a cross-sectional case-control study (54 eyes of DE patients; 34 eyes of control patients), average cell density, area, and process length of LCs were measured using confocal microscopy. Data were analyzed to determine whether changes in LCs are correlated with subbasal nerve plexus (SNP) parameters (nerve density, beading, and tortuosity). In DE patients, SNP density marginally decreased and nerve beading and tortuosity were significantly increased compared to the control group. The total number of LCs significantly increased in DE patients, and some LCs with elongated processes were found to be attached to nerve fibers. Interestingly, nerve loss and deformation were correlated with inactivation of LCs. In an in vivo experiment to elucidate the role of LCs in ocular surface inflammation and corneal nerve loss, we used a genetically modified mouse model (CD207-DTR) that reduced the population of CD207 (Langerin) expressing cells by injection of diphtheria toxin. In CD207-depleted mice with DE disease (CD207-dDTR+DE), corneal nerves in the central region were significantly decreased, an effect that was not observed in wild-type (WT)+DE mice. In CD207-dDTR+DE mice, infiltration of CD4+, CD19+, CD45+, and CD11b+ cells into the ocular surface was increased, as confirmed by flow cytometry. Increased IL-17 and IFN-γ mRNA levels, and decreased expression of neurotrophic factors and neurotransmitters, were also found in the CD207-dDTR+DE mice. These data support a functional role for LCs in negatively regulating ocular surface inflammation and exhibiting a neuroprotective function in DE disease.
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