AIMS: To further understand the morphological and functional recovery of corneal epithelium following excimer laser photorefractive keratectomy (PRK). METHODS: The right eyes (group 1) of 15 male, New Zealand white rabbits weighing 2-3 kg underwent PRK. The left eye of each rabbit (group 2) underwent simple mechanical de-epithelialisation and were examined as treated controls. Both eyes of another eight rabbits (group 3) served as untreated controls. All eyes underwent a corneal epithelial permeability study by fluorophotometry at 2, 4, and 8 weeks after surgery. Five animals in groups 1 and 2 were sacrificed at 9, 10, and 12 weeks after surgery. The animals in group 3 were sacrificed at the end of the 12 week experimental period. Both eyes of each sacrificed animal were enucleated immediately and processed for both haematoxylin and eosin stain and electron microscopic study. The electron micrograph was magnified to 14,000x and the extent of hemidesmosome formation was quantified and analysed. RESULTS: The corneal epithelial barrier to sodium fluorescein was subnormal and returned to a normal barrier state 4 weeks after PRK in group 1 whereas it was normal in group 2 throughout the examination period. The extent of hemidesmosome formation was abundant yet subnormal in both groups 1 and 2 up to 12 weeks, when compared with that in group 3. CONCLUSION: The corneal epithelium regained its functional barrier 4 weeks after PRK in rabbits while the extent of hemidesmosome formation was still subnormal 12 weeks after mechanical de-epithelialisation, with or without PRK.
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