We have hypothesized that differences in ocular irritancy are related to differences in extent of initial injury and that, regardless of the processes leading to tissue damage, extent of injury is the primary factor that determines the final outcome of ocular irritation. In previous in vivo confocal microscopic (CM) studies we identified quantifiable differences in the extent of corneal injury occurring with four surfactants (three anionic, one cationic) known to cause different levels of ocular irritation and demonstrated that extent of initial corneal injury was related to the magnitude of cell death. The purpose of this study was to assess the applicability of this hypothesis to a broad sampling of surfactants. Specifically, initial corneal changes induced by seven different surfactants (one anionic, three cationic, three nonionic) were measured by in vivo CM and cell death was measured by an ex vivo live/dead assay. The right eye of each rabbit was treated by placing 10 μl of a surfactant directly on the cornea. Eyes were examined macroscopically and scored for irritation at 3 h and 1 day. At 3 h and 1 day, in vivo CM was used to examine the corneas and quantitate epithelial cell size, epithelial thickness, corneal thickness, and depth of stromal injury. At 3 h and/or at 1 day, corneas were removed and excised regions were placed in culture media containing 2μM calcein AM and 4μM ethidium homodimer. Using laser scanning CM, the number of dead epithelial and/or stromal cells in a 300 x 300 x 170-μm3 (xyz) volume of the cornea was determined. In vivo CM and live/dead assay findings revealed three surfactants to affect only the epithelium, three surfactants to affect the epithelium and superficial stroma, and one surfactant to affect the epithelium and deep stroma. Extent of initial corneal injury reflected level of ocular irritation, and magnitude of cell death was related to the extent of initial corneal injury. These findings are consistent with those for known slight, mild, and moderate to severe irritants, respectively. They suggest that our hypothesis is broadly applicable to surfactants. Additionally, we believe these surfactants should be included as part of a new 'gold standard' for use in developing and validating in vitro tests to replace the use of animals in ocular irritancy testing.
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