Importance This study reveals significant changes of the anterior cornea in Fuchs endothelial dystrophy that probably affect the visual outcomes of endothelial keratoplasty for the disease.
Objective To determine whether abnormalities of corneal stromal and subepithelial cells in Fuchs endothelial dystrophy resolve after Descemet stripping endothelial keratoplasty (DSEK).
Design Prospective observational study of 49 corneas of 42 patients with Fuchs dystrophy before DSEK and during 3 years of postoperative follow-up. None of the preoperative corneas were vascularized or had pronounced subepithelial fibrosis on results of slitlamp examination. Corneas were examined using in vivo confocal microscopy to determine stromal cell density and the presence of abnormal subepithelial cells (presumed fibroblasts).
Setting The cornea service at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota.
Participants Forty-nine corneas of 42 patients.
Intervention Descemet stripping endothelial keratoplasty.
Main Outcome Measures Stromal cell density and presence of subepithelial cells.
Results Subnormal cell density in the most anterior 10% of the host stroma in Fuchs dystrophy before DSEK (mean [SD], 22 030  cells/mm3 [n = 41]) remained unchanged at 2 (20 433  cells/mm3 [n = 35]; P = .36) and 3 years (20 925  cells/mm3 [n = 23]; P = .99) after DSEK. Abnormal subepithelial cells, which formed reticular networks deep to the basal epithelial cells, were visible in 33 eyes (67%) and remained present at 3 years after DSEK. Mean preoperative central corneal thicknesses when these subepithelial cells were and were not visible were 652 (45) and 668 (56) μm, respectively (P = .75).
Conclusions and Relevance The reduced cellularity of the anterior stroma in Fuchs dystrophy does not recover 3 years after restoring endothelial function. Abnormal subepithelial cells, presumably fibroblasts, are present in most corneas with Fuchs dystrophy requiring DSEK, even in cases with mild edema and in the absence of clinically obvious preoperative subepithelial fibrosis. Anterior corneal structural abnormalities might be related to visual outcomes after DSEK.