Arginase activity, urea, and hydroxyproline concentration are reduced in keratoconus keratocytes

  • Tanja StachonEmail author
  • Krasimir Kolev
  • Zsuzsa Flaskó
  • Berthold Seitz
  • Achim Langenbucher
  • Nóra Szentmáry
Basic Science



Keratoconus (KC) is a disease characterized by thinning and deformation of the cornea, but its etiology remains unknown. Seventy percent of the corneal stroma consists of collagen, which is composed of three intertwined polypeptide chains with glycine-hydroxyproline-proline repeats along their sequence. Arginase is a cytoplasmatic enzyme and catalyzes the conversion of arginine to urea and ornithine, which serves as a precursor for the endogenous synthesis of proline and hydroxyproline. The purpose of this study was to analyze arginase activity, as well as collagen and urea formation in normal and KC-keratocytes and to determine the impact of urea on keratocyte viability and proliferation in vitro.


Primary human keratocytes were isolated by digestion in collagenase (1.0 mg/mL) from surgically removed corneas of eight keratoconus patients and eight normal human corneal buttons and cultured in DMEM/Ham’s F12 medium supplemented with 5 % fetal calf serum. Arginase activity and urea concentration were measured in cell-lysates, hydroxyproline concentration in supernatant of cultured keratocytes using colorimetric assay. Cell viability and cell proliferation of cultured keratocytes were assessed after treatment with urea at concentrations up to10 mM for 24 h using assays for metabolic activity and DNA replication.


Arginase activity and urea concentration in KC-keratocytes decreased by about 50 % compared to normal keratocytes (p = 0.003 and p = 0.008). Hydroxyproline synthesized by cultured KC-keratocytes was also approximately 50 % less compared to normal keratocytes (p = 0.02) and this difference decreased following treatment with 5.0 or 10.0 mM urea (p = 0.02; 0.03), without any change in cell viability (p > 0.09). However, the urea treatment increased modestly (by 20 %) the proliferation rate of KC-keratocytes (p = 0.04; 0.04; 0.04), without any effect on normal cultured keratocytes (p > 0.09).


We identified suppressed arginase activity in the metabolic program of cultured keratoconus keratocytes. The level of urea, as one product of the enzyme arginase was also decreased. This results in impaired collagen synthesis, evidenced in the culture by reduced hydroxyproline concentration. In addition, our data showed that the other product of the arginase reaction, urea supports the proliferation of KC-keratocytes, without changes in their viability. The metabolic reprogramming of keratoconus keratocytes and its impact on development of a clinically detectable keratoconus disease has to be further analyzed.


Urea Keratoconus Keratocytes Arginase Hydroxyproline concentration Viability Proliferation 



We thank the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for supporting the work of Dr. N. Szentmáry at the Department of Ophthalmology of Saarland University Medical Center in Homburg/Saar, Germany. Dr K. Kolev received support from the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (grant OTKA 112612).

Compliance with ethical standards


No funding was received for this research.

Conflict of Interest

All authors certify that they have no affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest (such as honoraria; educational grants; participation in speakers’ bureaus; membership, employment, consultancies, stock ownership, or other equity interest; and expert testimony or patent-licensing arrangements), or non-financial interest (such as personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge or beliefs) in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of OphthalmologySaarland University Medical CenterHomburgGermany
  2. 2.Department of Medical BiochemistrySemmelweis UniversityBudapestHungary
  3. 3.Department of OphthalmologyKenézy HospitalDebrecenHungary
  4. 4.Experimental OphthalmologySaarland UniversityHomburgGermany
  5. 5.Department of OphthalmologySemmelweis UniversityBudapestHungary

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