I am interested in events that regulate the differentiation of the multipotent neural crest cells during corneal development and neural crest-derived stromal keratocytes during cornea regeneration. The cornea is a highly specialized transparent tissue located at the anterior-most surface of the eye. An embryonic cell population known as neural crest cells gives rise to majority of the cells in the cornea, including: stromal keratocytes, corneal endothelium, and sensory nerves. Development and regeneration of the cornea are both multi-step processes that involve coordinated migration and differentiation of neural crest cells and keratocytes, respectively, as well as the intricate patterning of sensory nerves. Using chick as a model organism and a combination of molecular, microsurgical, and tissue culture approaches, we have shown that: 1) only a subpopulation of neural crest cells can properly contribute to the cornea, 2) corneal keratocytes retain the stem cell-like properties of their neural crest progenitors when challenged in an embryonic environment, and 3) the lens-derived axon guidance molecule, Semaphorin3A, regulates sensory innervation of the cornea, neural crest cell migration, and vascular patterning in the anterior eye. Currently, our research is aimed at further elucidating the role of guidance molecules during cornea development. Since cornea regeneration recapitulates development, we will extrapolate our studies to cornea wound healing. In addition to the chick, these studies involve the mouse as a genetic model organism to further our understanding of the genes that are involved in these processes. We are also studying the stem cell potential of keratocytes and their characteristics in the embryonic environment. Ultimately, the goal of our research is to provide an insight into how guidance molecules are disrupted in congenital eye disorders and cornea wound healing, which may lead to discoveries of remedies or cures to these ocular problems.
Molecular regulation of cornea development and regeneration; Neural crest cell migration and differentiation; Trigeminal Sensory innervation; Ocular vasculogenesis and cornea avascularity; Cornea wound healing/regeneration
B.S. Biology (1994) University of Northern Iowa; M.S. Cell & Developmental Biology (1997) University of Northern Iowa; Ph.D. Cell & Developmental Biology (2001) Kansas State University