The structural modifications in the stromal matrix induced by low-temperature corneal laser welding were investigated by atomic force microscopy (AFM). This procedure consists of staining the wound with Indocyanine Green (ICG), followed by irradiation with a near-infrared laser operated at low-power densities. This induces a local heating in the 55-65 °C range. In welded tissue, extracellular components undergo heat-induced structural modifications, resulting in a joining effect between the cut edges. However, the exact mechanism generating the welding, to date, is not completely understood.
Full-thickness cuts, 3.5 mm in length, were made in fresh porcine cornea samples, and these were then subjected to laser welding operated at 16.7 W/cm2 power density. AFM imaging was performed on resin-embedded semi-thin slices once they had been cleared by chemical etching, in order to expose the stromal bulk of the tissue within the section. We then carried out a morphological analysis of characteristic fibrillar features in the laser-treated and control samples.
AFM images of control stromal regions highlighted well-organized collagen fibrils (36.2 ± 8.7 nm in size) running parallel to each other as in a typical lamellar domain. The fibrils exhibited a beaded pattern with a 22-39 nm axial periodicity. Laser-treated corneal regions were characterized by a significant disorganization of the intralamellar architecture. At the weld site, groups of interwoven fibrils joined the cut edges, showing structural properties that were fully comparable with those of control regions. This suggested that fibrillar collagen is not denatured by low-temperature laser welding, confirming previous transmission electron microscopy (TEM) observations, and thus it is probably not involved in the closure mechanism of corneal cuts. The loss of fibrillar organization may be related to some structural modifications in some interfibrillar substance as proteoglycans or collagen VI.
Furthermore, AFM imaging was demonstrated to be a suitable tool for attaining three-dimensional information on the fibrillar assembly of corneal stroma. The results suggested that AFM analyses of resin-embedded histological sections subjected to chemical etching provide a rapid and cost-effective response, with an imaging resolution that is quite similar to that of TEM.