1998 J Invest Dermatol 1998 Jul ;111 (1):97-106
Department of Dermatology, Leiden, The Netherlands.

Normalization of epidermal calcium distribution profile in reconstructed human epidermis is related to improvement of terminal differentiation and stratum corneum barrier formation

Calcium plays an important role in the regulation of cellular differentiation and desquamation of epidermal keratinocytes. In this study, we examined the calcium distribution in reconstructed epidermis in an attempt to understand the physiology of keratinocyte differentiation and desquamation in vitro. Ion capture cytochemistry (the potassium oxalate-pyroantimonate method) was employed to localize ionic calcium in reconstructed epidermis generated under three different culture conditions (in serum-containing medium, serum-free medium, and serum-free medium supplemented with retinoic acid), allowing a comparison of the physiology of incompletely and well-differentiated keratinocytes. The reconstructed epidermis generated in serum-containing medium showed features of incomplete differentiation, and compared with the native skin, a high calcium content within incompletely differentiated cells in the stratum corneum. Use of serum-free medium containing vitamin and lipid supplements led to a marked improvement of the stratum corneum ultrastructure and penetration pathway across the stratum corneum, indicating improved barrier formation of the reconstructed epidermis. In parallel, the calcium distribution pattern was normalized showing the highest levels of calcium in the stratum granulosum and low levels in the inner stratum corneum. Addition of retinoic acid to the serum-free medium resulted in an altered keratinocyte differentiation and re-appearance of large quantities of calcium precipitates in the stratum corneum. Proton probe X-ray microanalysis was applied to investigate the calcium distribution quantitatively in native and reconstructed epidermis generated in serum-free medium, and verified the calcium distribution demonstrated by the precipitation technique. Regardless of the presence or absence of calcium in the stratum corneum, all examined culture systems exhibited insufficient desquamation, which correlates with the finding that stratum corneum chymotryptic enzyme was present predominantly as an inactive precursor. This study demonstrates that improvement of the stratum corneum barrier properties in vitro is concurrent with the normalization of the epidermal calcium gradient, whereas deregulation of terminal differentiation correlates with an accumulation of calcium ions within incompletely differentiated corneocytes.