Descemet Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty

From EyeWiki

Descemet Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty

Surgical Therapy

Descemet’s Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty (DSEK)


Corneal transplantation is a widely practiced surgical procedure. Over the past decade, lamellar techniques have been developed to replace penetrating keratoplasty (PK) [1] . Endothelial Keratoplasty (EK) has been adapted as an alternative in the treatment of corneal endothelial disorders. [2] In the various forms of endokeratoplasty, Descemet’s membrane and the endothelium are replaced, with or without a varying amount of corneal stroma. [3]

In Descemet’s stripping endothelial keratoplasty (DSEK), the patient’s Descemet membrane is peeled off, using specially designed strippers [4] and replaced with a partial thickness graft: a transplanted disc of Posterior Stroma, Descemet and Endothelium (20-30 % of the inner donor cornea). Both donor and host cornea are manually dissected. Differently, in Descemet’s stripping automated endothelial keratoplasty (DSAEK) the donor dissection is carried out using a mechanical microkeratome. DSAEK is described as the procedure of choice for corneal endothelial failure in many centers. [4]


DSEK is intended to transplant a healthy endothelial cell layer that will pump the fluid out of the cornea. It’s expected to restore corneal clarity and improve vision. [5] This procedure corrects corneal endothelium failure, but is not able to correct corneal scarring, thinning or surface irregularity.

Patient Selection


Not all patients with corneal pathology are candidates for DSEK. The indication depends on decreased vision related to corneal swelling from poorly functioning endothelium. The main indications are:

  • Acquired Pseudophakic or Aphakic bullous keratopathy, Failed previous graft.
  • Inherited Fuch’s Endothelial Dystrophy and Iridocorneal Endothelial Syndrome.

The ideal time to perform DSEK to prevent permanent change is unclear. However, accordingly to a recent study [6] early DSEK influences visual outcomes in Pseudophakic Corneal Edema. There is a significant relationship between Cataract Extraction to DSEK time and Best Spectacle Corrected Visual Acuity. Performing earlier (<6 M) DSEK for pseudophakic corneal edema appears to be associated with improved visual outcomes. [6]

Surgical Technique

This procedure, which takes approximately 45 min, is done under local or general anesthesia. First the endothelium and Descemet’s membrane of the cornea is stripped away through a corneal incision. Then a circular disc is removed from the inner lining of a donor cornea. This thin layer is then transplanted into the recipient eye and attached to the posterior cornea of the recipient. [5]

Donor tissue preparation: Corneoscleral buttons are excised from donor globes and stored by organ culture. Each globe is mounted on a purpose-designed holder and the anterior chamber is filled with air to create an air-endothelium interface. With dissection spatulas, a manual stromal dissection is made at approximately 95% stromal depth using air-to-endothelium reflex to monitor dissection depth. Stromal dissection is extended up to limbus over 360 degrees. After dissection is completed, a 16.0 mm corneoscleral rim is excised from each globe and the endothelium is evaluated with an inverted light microscope and stored in organ culture until time of transplantation. [7]

Surgical technique: With a reverse Sinskey hook, a circular portion of Descemet membrane is scored and stripped from the posterior stroma so a descemetorhexis is created and the central portion of Descemet membrane is removed from the eye. A temporal self-sealing 5.0 mm sclerocorneal incision is created with a crescent knife. After trephinating an 8.5 or 9.0 mm diameter DSEK-graft from the predissected corneoslceral rim, the tissue is folded over 60/40, like a taco, and stained with trypan blue. A plastic glide is carefully inserted through the temporal incision. Then, the graft is inserted into the anterior chamber of the recipient by sliding over the plastic glide using a 30-gauge bent needle. [8] The glide is removed, and the DSEK graft is unfolded in the recipient anterior chamber with balanced salt solution and an air bubble and positioned against the posterior stroma of the host. The graft is unfolded over the recipient peripheral iris, taking care of touch between stromal surface of the graft and the underlying structures to avoid endothelial damage intraoperatively. After the DSEK graft was unfolded, the anterior chamber is completely filled with air. [7]. Dilating drops are used to prevent any pupillary block from air bubble. Once the donor disc is in final position with no interface fluid the surgeon removes the air in the anterior chamber and replaces it with BSS to pressurize the eye. An air bubble of approximately 8 to 9 mm is usually left in place to help further stabilize the donor disc position over the first 24 hours postoperatively. [9] The air bubble pushes the graft in place until it heals in an appropriate position, giving time for the pumping action of endothelium to help the donor tissue bind to its new host [10]. The structure of the cornea remains intact.

After the surgery, the patient lie in a supine position, flat, facing the ceiling, for the first hour after surgery and then as much as possible to allow the retained air bubble to further stabilize the graft position, but this is not critical. The patient is discharged following this outpatient procedure when fully recovered from the anesthesia. [9]

Postoperative care should include broad-spectrum antibiotics to prevent infection and steroids (initially dexamethasone, then fluorometholone) to prevent rejection. [7] Patient should lie in the supine position for one more day after DSEK (to utilize the residual air bubble in the anterior chamber) and to not rub their eye for 2 weeks after DSEK surgery. [9]

Advantages and Challenges

DSEK Procedure Advantages

Over PK:

  • Less Invasive, smaller surgical incisions
  • No corneal-graft sutures
  • Faster visual recovery
  • Less risk of sight threating complications and less induced astigmatism
  • Post-surgery stronger eye (less prone to injury)
  • Less risk of immune rejection of the transplanted corneal tissue
  • Shorter post-operative care

DSEK itself:

  • Increase overall donor tissue availability [2], using the posterior layer of the donor cornea in one patient and the anterior lamellar graft in another patient.
  • Faster to learn. DMEK Surgical technique may require more training, technically more challenging. [2]

DSEK Procedure Challenges

Over DMEK:

  • Suboptimal visual acuity. [2] Optical irregularities due to stromal layers being transplanted in DSEK.
  • Slow visual rehabilitation. [2]
  • Interface problems, folds in the donor disk from maladaptation to the recipient stroma, decentration of the donor disk, and excess donor corneal thickness. [11]

DSEK itself:

  • Limited accessibility (investments in equipment)
  • Drop in Donor endothelial cell density in the early post-operative phase. [2]

Overcome Complications

  • A particular complication of DSEK is Graft Dislocation: graft moves from its intended position. Dislocation rate is significantly higher in DSAEK groups than DSEK. [4] Donor tissue reposition is easily treated by taking the patient back to surgery, and usually under topical anesthesia, with a 15 minute operation, another air bubble is placed in the anterior chamber and the disc is repositioned. [9]
  • Primary graft failure: Some studies suggest a primary graft failure rate of 5.7% [3]. Endothelial pump function has an important role in graft adhesion. In many cases, graft fails to adhere because the surgeon was too aggressive in handling it, and damaged endothelial cells. [10] DSAEK showed significantly poorer graft survival than DSEK (P = 0.013), apparent only 18 months after graft. [3]
  • Graft Rejection: Rejection can develop months or years after the transplant. Against PK, initial rejection symptoms after DSEK procedure are usually subtle. Patients can be asymptomatic. When patients show redness, blurry vision and light sensitivity the rejection is severe. To prevent rejection patients should be under a closed follow-up care and kept on a prophylactic tapering down eye drop steroids regimen.
  • Over expected cell-loss: Assessing endothelial cell density (ECD) after DSEK, it is expected a median cell loss of 32% in the perioperative period. After that the ECD declines at a linear rate of approximately 110 cells/mm2 per year between 6 months and 10 years after DSEK [12]. Gradual reduction in endothelial cell density over time can lead to loss of clarity and require repeating the procedure.

Follow up care

  • Use the slit lamp: to ensure that the graft is fully attached and to look for signs of rejection (scattered keratic precipitates, edema or conjunctival hyperemia). Fig. 1.
  • Check IOP: monitor for steroid-induced pressure spikes.
  • Check the refraction after first month.
  • Check the central corneal thickness: a graft that is getting thicker over time may be failing and a graft that gets thicker suddenly signals rejection.
  • Watch for detachments: Anterior segment OCT can assess for graft detachments. Fig. 2. If the graft is detached, it will need to be reattached by rebubbling the anterior chamber. Since the graft has been in aqueous fluid, it often works well after reattachment. [13]
Fig. 1. DSAEK - Slit Lamp Observation Courtesy of Dr. Tiago Bravo Ferreira
Fig. 2. DSAEK - Anterior Segment OCT Courtesy of Dr Tiago Bravo Ferreira


Even though DSEK/DSAEK may be the current standard, the newer partial thickness Descemet’s Membrane Endothelial Keratoplasty may have better clinical outcomes and may also require less investment in preparation of isolated Descemet grafts. A study [14] compared outcomes after DMEK and DSEK during the surgeon’s DMEK learning curve and there was some evidence of improved visual acuity outcomes in DMEK. They observed worse 6-month endothelial cell loss among DMEK patients, however this may improve with surgeon experience. So corneal surgeons may consider “to make the switch” to DMEK. [2]

Additional Resources


  1. Tan DT, Dart JK, Holland EJ, Kinoshita S. Corneal transplantation. Lancet. 2012;379:1749–61.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Dapena I, Ham L, Melles GR. Endothelial keratoplasty: DSEK/DSAEK or DMEK – the thinner the better? Curr Opin Ophthalmol. 2009 Jul;20(4):299-307.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Coster DJ, Lowe MT, Keane MC, Williams KA. A comparision of lamellar and penetrating keratoplasty outcomes. Ophthalmology. 2014 May;121(5):979-87.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Bahar I, Kaiserman I, McAllum P, Slomovic A, Rootman D. Comparison of posterior lamellar keratoplasty techniques to penetrating keratoplasty. Ophthalmology. 2008 Sep;115(9):1525-33.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Stuart AJ, Virgili G, Shortt AJ. Descemet’s membrane endothelial keratoplasty versus Descemet’s stripping automated endothelial keratoplasty for corneal endothelial failure (Protocol). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD012097.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Weissbart SB, Hammersmith KM, Ayres BD, Rapuano CJ, Nagra PK, Raber IM, Azari AA. Influence of Early Descemet Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty on Visual Outcomes in Pseudophakic Corneal Edema. Am J Ophthalmol. 2016 Dec;172:58-63.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Liarakos VS, Ham L, Dapena I, Tong CM, Quilendrino R, Yeh RY, Melles GR. Endothelial keratoplasty for bullous keratopathy in eyes with an anterior chamber intraocular lens. J Cataract Refract Surg. 2013 Dec;39(12):1835-45.
  8. Balachandran C, Ham L, Birbal RS, Wong TH, van der Wees J, Melles GR. Simple technique for graft insertion in Descemet-stripping (automated) endothelial keratoplastyusing a 30-gauge needle. J Cataract Refract Surg. 2009 Apr;35(4):625-8.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Lindstrom RL, Jhon T. Corneal Endothelial Transplant. First Edition. New Delhi, India. Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishers (P) Ltd. 2010
  10. 10.0 10.1 Bethke W. Getting the Most from DSEK and DSAEK. Review of ophthalmology. Accessed May 20, 2017
  11. Villarrubia A, Cano-Ortiz A. Development of a nomogram to achieve ultrathin donor corneal disks for Descemet-stripping automated endothelial keratoplasty. J Cataract Refract Surg. 2015 Jan;41(1):146-51.
  12. Price MO, Calhoun P, Kollman C, Price FW Jr, Lass JH. Descemet Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty: Ten-Year Endothelial Cell Loss Compared with penetrating Keratoplasty. Ophthalmology. 2016 Jul;123(7):1421-7.
  13. Karmel M. Postop DSEK: Comprehensive Ophthalmologists Take the Wheel. EyeNet Magazine. Accessed May 20, 2017.
  14. Rose-Nussbaumer J, Alloju S, Chamberlain W. Clinical Outcomes of Descemet Membrane Endothelial Keratoplasty During the Surgeon Learning Curve Versus Descemet Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty Performed at the Same Time. Journal of clinical & experimental ophthalmology. 2016. Oct; 7(5): 599.