Purpose: Using CJLAT, a chimeric herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) that produces a high incidence of herpes stromal keratitis (HSK) in latently infected rabbits, and in vivo confocal microscopy (CM), we characterized the cellular events that precede the development of HSK. Methods: Thirty days after infection, in vivo CM was performed daily for 10 days and then weekly for up to 80 days after infection. Results: We detected 3 types of subclinical corneal lesions before HSK was clinically apparent: (1) small epithelial erosions; (2) regenerating epithelium overlying small cell infiltrates within the basal epithelial cell layer; and (3) dendritic-like cells within the basal epithelial layer overlying stromal foci containing infiltrating cells. Sequential in vivo CM observations suggested that subclinical foci resolved over time but were larger and more abundant with CJLAT than with wild-type HSV-1 McKrae. Active HSK was observed only with CJLAT and was initially associated with a large epithelial lesion overlying stromal immune cell infiltrates. Conclusions: These results suggest that replication in the cornea of reactivated virus from the trigeminal ganglia produces epithelial lesions, which recruit immune cell infiltrates into the basal epithelial layer and anterior stroma. The virus is usually cleared rapidly eliminating viral antigens before the arrival of the immune cells, which disperse. However, if the virus is not cleared rapidly, or if an additional reactivation results in an additional round of virus at the same site before the immune cells disperse, then the immune cells are stimulated and may induce an immunopathological response leading to the development of HSK.
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