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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Evaluation of the cytotoxic effects of ophthalmic solutions containing benzalkonium chloride on corneal epithelium using an organotypic 3-D model

Su Khoh-Reiter and Bart A Jessen*

Author Affiliations

Drug Safety Research and Development, Pfizer Inc, 10646 Science Center Drive, San Diego, CA 92121, USA

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BMC Ophthalmology 2009, 9:5  doi:10.1186/1471-2415-9-5

Published: 28 July 2009



Benzalkonium chloride (BAC) is a common preservative used in ophthalmic solutions. The aim of this study was to compare the cytotoxic effects of BAC-containing ophthalmic solutions with a BAC-free ophthalmic solution using an organotypic 3-dimensional (3-D) corneal epithelial model and to determine the effects of latanoprost ophthalmic solution and its BAC-containing vehicle on corneal thickness in a monkey model.


The cytotoxicity of commercially available BAC-containing ophthalmic formulations of latanoprost (0.02% BAC) and olopatadine (0.01% BAC) was compared to that of BAC-free travoprost and saline in a corneal organotypic 3-D model using incubation times of 10 and 25 minutes. To compare the extent of differentiation of 3-D corneal cultures to monolayer transformed human corneal epithelial (HCE-T) cell cultures, expression levels (mRNA and protein) of the corneal markers epidermal growth factor receptor, transglutaminase 1 and involucrin were quantified. Finally, latanoprost ophthalmic solution or its vehicle was administered at suprapharmacologic doses (two 30 μL drops twice daily in 1 eye for 1 year) in monkey eyes, and corneal pachymetry was performed at baseline and at weeks 4, 13, 26 and 52.


In the 3-D corneal epithelial culture assays, there were no significant differences in cytotoxicity between the BAC-containing latanoprost and olopatadine ophthalmic solutions and BAC-free travoprost ophthalmic solution at either the 10- or 25-minute time points. The 3-D cultures expressed higher levels of corneal epithelial markers than the HCE-T monolayers, indicating a greater degree of differentiation. There were no significant differences between the corneal thickness of monkey eyes treated with latanoprost ophthalmic solution or its vehicle (both containing 0.02% BAC) and untreated eyes.


The lack of cytotoxicity demonstrated in 3-D corneal cultures and in monkey studies suggests that the levels of BAC contained in ophthalmic solutions are not likely to cause significant direct toxicity to epithelium of otherwise normal corneas.