Cortisol biosynthesis in the human ocular surface innate immune response

Radhika Susarla, Lei Liu, Elizabeth A. Walker, Iwona J. Bujalska, Jawaher Alsalem, Geraint P. Williams, Sreekanth Sreekantam, Angela E. Taylor, Mohammad Tallouzi, Susan Southworth, Philip I. Murray, Graham R. Wallace, Saaeha Rauz

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Innate immune responses have a critical role in regulating sight-threatening ocular surface (OcS) inflammation. While glucocorticoids (GCs) are frequently used to limit tissue damage, the role of intracrine GC (cortisol) bioavailability via 11-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11β-HSD1) in OcS defense, remains unresolved. We found that primary human corneal epithelial cells (PHCEC), fibroblasts (PHKF) and allogeneic macrophages (M1, GM-CSF; M2, M-CSF) were capable of generating cortisol (M1>PHKF>M2>PHCEC) but in corneal cells, this was independent of Toll-like receptor (TLR) activation. While PolyI:C induced maximal cytokine and chemokine production from both PHCEC (IFNγ, CCL2, CCL3, and (CCL4), IL6, CXCL10, CCL5, TNFα) and PHKF (CCL2, IL-6, CXCL10, CCL5), only PHKF cytokines were inhibited by GCs. Both Poly I:C and LPS challenged-corneal cells induced M1 chemotaxis (greatest LPS-PHKF (250%), but down-regulated M1 11β-HSD1 activity (30 and 40% respectively). These data were supported by clinical studies demonstrating reduced human tear film cortisol:cortisone ratios (a biomarker of local 11β-HSD1 activity) in pseudomonas keratitis (1:2.9) versus healthy controls (1:1.3; p<0.05). This contrasted with putative TLR3-mediated OcS disease (Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, Mucous membrane pemphigoid) where an increase in cortisol:cortisone ratio was observed (113.8:1; p<0.05). In summary, cortisol biosynthesis in human corneal cells is independent of TLR activation and is likely to afford immunoprotection under physiological conditions. Contribution to ocular mucosal innate responses is dependent on the aetiology of immunological challenge.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere94913
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2014


  • Cornea
  • Cytokines
  • Eyes
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Keratitis
  • Macrophages
  • Monocytes
  • Ocular anatomy


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