Transepithelial versus epithelium-off corneal crosslinking for progressive keratoconus

Sueko M. Ng, Mark Ren, Kristina B. Lindsley, Barbara S. Hawkins, Irene C. Kuo

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Background: Keratoconus is the most common corneal dystrophy. It can cause loss of uncorrected and best-corrected visual acuity through ectasia (thinning) of the central or paracentral cornea, irregular corneal scarring, or corneal perforation. Disease onset usually occurs in the second to fourth decade of life, periods of peak educational attainment or career development. The condition is lifelong and sight-threatening. Corneal collagen crosslinking (CXL) using ultraviolet A (UVA) light applied to the cornea is the only treatment that has been shown to slow progression of disease. The original, more widely known technique involves application of UVA light to de-epithelialized cornea, to which a photosensitizer (riboflavin) is added topically throughout the irradiation process. Transepithelial CXL is a recently advocated alternative to the standard CXL procedure, in that the epithelium is kept intact during CXL. Retention of the epithelium offers the putative advantages of faster healing, less patient discomfort, faster visual rehabilitation, and less risk of corneal haze. Objectives: To assess the short- and long-term effectiveness and safety of transepithelial CXL compared with epithelium-off CXL for progressive keratoconus. Search methods: To identify potentially eligible studies, we searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (which contains the Cochrane Eyes and Vision Trials Register) (2020, Issue 1); Ovid MEDLINE;; PubMed; Latin American and Caribbean Health Sciences Literature database (LILACS);; and World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP). We did not impose any date or language restrictions. We last searched the electronic databases on 15 January 2020. Selection criteria: We included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in which transepithelial CXL had been compared with epithelium-off CXL in participants with progressive keratoconus. Data collection and analysis: We used standard Cochrane methodology. Main results: We included 13 studies with 723 eyes of 578 participants enrolled; 13 to 119 participants were enrolled per study. Seven studies were conducted in Europe, three in the Middle East, and one each in India, Russia, and Turkey. Seven studies were parallel-group RCTs, one study was an RCT with a paired-eyes design, and five studies were RCTs in which both eyes of some or all participants were assigned to the same intervention. Eleven studies compared transepithelial CXL with epithelium-off CXL in participants with progressive keratoconus. There was no evidence of an important difference between intervention groups in maximum keratometry (denoted 'maximum K' or 'Kmax'; also known as steepest keratometry measurement) at 12 months or later (mean difference (MD) 0.99 diopters (D), 95% CI −0.11 to 2.09; 5 studies; 177 eyes; I2 = 41%; very low certainty evidence). Few studies described other outcomes of interest. The evidence is very uncertain that epithelium-off CXL may have a small (data from two studies were not pooled due to considerable heterogeneity (I2 = 92%)) or no effect on stabilization of progressive keratoconus compared with transepithelial CXL; comparison of the estimated proportions of eyes with decreases or increases of 2 or more diopters in maximum K at 12 months from one study with 61 eyes was RR 0.32 (95% CI 0.09 to 1.12) and RR (non-event) 0.86 (95% CI 0.74 to 1.00), respectively (very low certainty). We did not estimate an overall effect on corrected-distance visual acuity (CDVA) because substantial heterogeneity was detected (I2 = 70%). No study evaluated CDVA gain or loss of 10 or more letters on a logarithm of the minimum angle of resolution (logMAR) chart. Transepithelial CXL may result in little to no difference in CDVA at 12 months or beyond. Four studies reported that either no adverse events or no serious adverse events had been observed. Another study noted no change in endothelial cell count after either procedure. Moderate certainty evidence from 4 studies (221 eyes) found that epithelium-off CXL resulted in a slight increase in corneal haze or scarring when compared to transepithelial CXL (RR (non-event) 1.07, 95% CI 1.01 to 1.14). Three studies, one of which had three arms, compared outcomes among participants assigned to transepithelial CXL using iontophoresis versus those assigned to epithelium-off CXL. No conclusive evidence was found for either keratometry or visual acuity outcomes at 12 months or later after surgery. Low certainty evidence suggests that transepithelial CXL using iontophoresis results in no difference in logMAR CDVA (MD 0.00 letter, 95% CI −0.04 to 0.04; 2 studies; 51 eyes). Only one study examined gain or loss of 10 or more logMAR letters. In terms of adverse events, one case of subepithelial infiltrate was reported after transepithelial CXL with iontophoresis, whereas two cases of faint corneal scars and four cases of permanent haze were observed after epithelium-off CXL. Vogt's striae were found in one eye after each intervention. The certainty of the evidence was low or very low for the outcomes in this comparison due to imprecision of estimates for all outcomes and risk of bias in the studies from which data have been reported. Authors' conclusions: Because of lack of precision, frequent indeterminate risk of bias due to inadequate reporting, and inconsistency in outcomes measured and reported among studies in this systematic review, it remains unknown whether transepithelial CXL, or any other approach, may confer an advantage over epithelium-off CXL for patients with progressive keratoconus with respect to further progression of keratoconus, visual acuity outcomes, and patient-reported outcomes (PROs). Arrest of the progression of keratoconus should be the primary outcome of interest in future trials of CXL, particularly when comparing the effectiveness of different approaches to CXL. Furthermore, methods of assessing and defining progressive keratoconus should be standardized. Trials with longer follow-up are required in order to assure that outcomes are measured after corneal wound-healing and stabilization of keratoconus. In addition, perioperative, intraoperative, and postoperative care should be standardized to permit meaningful comparisons of CXL methods. Methods to increase penetration of riboflavin through intact epithelium as well as delivery of increased dose of UVA may be needed to improve outcomes. PROs should be measured and reported. The visual significance of adverse outcomes, such as corneal haze, should be assessed and correlated with other outcomes, including PROs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberCD013512
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 23 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)


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