Cigarette Smoke Damages Corneal Cellular Structure, Study Shows

Research explains how smoking results in reduced corneal endothelial cell density.

Exposure to chronic cigarette smoke reduces the density of corneal endothelial cells (CEC) in mice while decreasing the levels of multiple collagen and extracellular matrix proteins associated with Descemet’s membrane (DM), researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have concluded. 

Several factors contribute to CEC loss and decreased cell density, including endothelial dystrophies, surgical trauma, age, and smoking. Exposure to cigarette smoke  has been linked to several ocular diseases, such as glaucoma, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration, according to the study published in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science. Prior research has linked cigarette smoke with corneal endothelial dystrophy as well. 

According to the findings, the corneal endothelium images of cigarette smoke-exposed and control group mice revealed a difference in the shape of CECs, along with a nearly 10% decrease in CEC density (P <.00003) after smoke exposure. Proteome profiling identified a total of 524 proteins exhibiting statistically significant changes in corneal endothelium from smoke-exposed mice. Proteins associated with Descemet’s membrane (DM), including COL4α1, COL4α2, COL4α3, COL4α4, COL4α5, COL4α6, COL8α1, COL8α2, and FN1, among others, exhibited diminished protein levels in the corneal endothelium of the mice exposed to cigarette smoke.

“Our data confirm that exposure to cigarette smoke results in reduced CEC density accompanied by diminished levels of multiple collagen and ECM proteins associated with DM,” the report says. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report investigating the effects of cigarette smoke on the CE through MS-based proteome profiling in mice.”.


Ali M, Khan SY, Jang Y, et al. Cigarette smoke triggers loss of corneal endothelial cells and disruption of descemet’s membrane proteins in mice. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2021;62(3):3. doi:10.1167/iovs.62.3.3.