Corneal endothelial (CE) dysfunction is the main indication for corneal transplantation, an invasive procedure with several limitations. Developing novel strategies to re-activate CE regenerative capacity is, therefore, of fundamental importance. This goal has proved to be challenging as corneal endothelial cells (CEnC) are blocked in the G0/G1 phase of the cell cycle in vivo and, albeit retaining proliferative capacity in vitro, this is further hindered by endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition. Herein we investigated the mechanisms regulating CEnC proliferation in vitro. Comparing the proteome of non-proliferating (in vivo—G0/G1) and proliferating (in vitro—G2/M) rabbit CEnC (rCEnC), 77 proteins, out of 3,328 identified, were differentially expressed in the two groups (p < 0.005). Literature and Gene Ontology analysis revealed β-catenin and transforming growth factor (TGF-β) pathways to be correlated with the identified proteins. Treatment of rCEnC with a β-catenin activator and inhibitor showed that β-catenin activation was necessary during rCEnC proliferation, but not sufficient for its induction. Furthermore, both pro-proliferative activity of basic fibroblast growth factor and anti-proliferative effects of TGF-β were regulated through β-catenin. Overall, these results provide novel insights into the molecular basis underlying the proliferation process that CEnC re-activate in vitro, consolidating the role of β-catenin and TGF-β.
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