The HNK-1 Carbohydrate Epitope and the Human Eye in Health and Disease


Ophthalmic Pathology Laboratory, Department of Ophthalmology, Helsinki University Central Hospital, Helsinki, Finland


The HNK-1 carbohydrate epitope is part of many cell membrane and extracellular matrix molecules, several of which have been implicated in cell adhesion. It is a versatile tool in eye research. In the human eye this epitope is present in the retina, the optic and ciliary nerves, the ciliary and iris epithelia, the zonular lamella, and the sclera. It is phylogenetically conserved, but the positive cell types vary from species to species. In addition to revealing interspecies differences in the vertebrate retina, the HNK-1 epitope has been used to identify a novel cell type in the eye: the subepithelial matrix cells that reside in the inner connective tissue layer (ICTL) of the ciliary body. Although these cells resemble fibroblasts in ultrastructure, they form a distinct cell population that differs in antigenic profile from fibroblasts in other tissues. The HNK-1 epitope is also associated with the elastic fiber system of the ICTL, which may be produced by the subepithelial matrix cells. It may help to structurally stabilize the ciliary body and the retina. The HNK-1 epitope is also involved in many important eye diseases. The subepithelial matrix cells seem to be susceptible to irrreversible atrophy as a result of glaucoma, thermal injury, and tissue compression. On the other hand, the HNK-1 epitope is found in the extracellular matrix of secondary cataracts and may contribute to its pathogenesis. Finally, this epitope has proved to be useful in identifying deposits of exfoliation material, and in tracing neuroepithelial derivatives in developmental anomalies and tumors of the eye. Pathology & Oncology Research, Vol 3, Nr 1, 8-14, 1997

Key words: Cell adhesion; Ciliary body; Inner connective tissue layer; Natural killer cell; Retina; Subepithelial matrix cell

Received: Dec 30, 1996; accepted: Feb 27, 1997
Correspondence: Marita UUSITALO, Ophthalmic Pathology Laboratory, Department of Ophthalmology, Helsinki University Central Hospital, Haartmaninkatu 4C Helsinki FIN-00290, Finland; Tel: +0358-9471, Fax: +358-9471; E-mail:

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