Keratinocytes are the predominant cells in human skin. As keratinocytes differentiate, the nuclei are lost and the cornified cell envelope (CCE) develops, forming a covalently cross-linked, insoluble structure under the cell membrane. Layers of anuclear COEs in the stratum corneum provide a barrier against water loss and mechanical damage and are a first line of immunologic defense. Infection of keratinocytes with human papillomaviruses (HPVs) induces proliferation and abnormalities including retention of nuclei in the stratum corneum and perinuclear halo formation. For effective transmission, HPV virions must be released from the CCE, a normally very durable structure. Therefore, it is likely that HPV infection affects the CCE in a manner that would facilitate virion release. To investigate the effects of HPV 11 infection on morphology and fragility, CCEs were purified from infected and uninfected epithelium. CCEs isolated from uninfected epithelium were smooth, cuboidal, and sonicated into long coiled structures. In contrast, CCEs from HPV 11-infected epithelium were irregular in size and shape, with rough edges, and sonicated into small fragments. In addition, the thickness of CCEs from HPV 11-infected tissue was 65% that of uninfected epithelium. Immunohistochemical analysis demonstrated that in contrast to uninfected epithelium, loricrin, the major component of the CCE, was abnormally distributed in the differentiated layers of HPV 11-infected epithelium. We conclude that in addition to the previously described epithelial abnormalities induced by HPV, the CCE is also affected by infection in ways that may facilitate transmission of virus from person to person.
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