Descemet’s Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty (DSEK)
Your doctor has decided that you will benefit from a corneal transplant operation.
This handout will explain your options to you. It explains the differences between
a traditional corneal transplant and the DSEK, Descemet’s Stripping Endothelial
Corneal Transplant Surgery
The human cornea is made up of three layers.
Outer – epithelial layer
Middle – stromal layer (about 90% of the total thickness)
Inner – endothelial layer
The endothelial layer is made up of a single layer of thousands of small pump
cells. These cells sit on a thin strip of tissue called Descemet’s membrane. These
endothelial pump cells pump fluid out of the cornea so it can remain clear and thin
to provide good vision for the eye. If the pump cells stop working, the cornea fills
up with fluid. It becomes swollen and cloudy, and causes blurry vision.
The endothelial cells can be lost due to
Inherited diseases (such as Fuchs’ Corneal Dystrophy)
Previous intraocular surgery
If a critical number of endothelial cells are lost, the cornea becomes swollen and
cloudy. Medical treatment is not helpful. A corneal transplant operation is
needed. The other corneal layers, the stroma and outer epithelium, are most often
healthy. Many patients needing corneal transplant surgery have problems only
with the endothelial cells.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Traditional Technique
A standard corneal transplant consists of removing the entire cloudy cornea. It is
replaced with a full thickness donor cornea which replaces all three layers of the
cornea. This surgery was first developed one hundred years ago. The success rate
today is based on many refinements to this technique. It has stood the test of time.
The advantage of the traditional corneal transplant is the long success record that
we have with it. There is a 90% success rate. The rate of rejection is only about
8%. It is fairly easy to combine other surgery with it, such as cataract extraction or
Disadvantages of the traditional corneal transplant
Length of time for the operation (90 to 120 minutes).
Problems in suturing the new cornea into place.
Sutures may come loose or cause infections.
Sutures may cause astigmatism (an irregular corneal shape). Astigmatism
after this surgery can be so major that eyeglasses alone won’t correct it. In
the end, some patients need contact lenses or more surgery.
Risk of a rupture or break from mild or minor trauma, even years after the
Recovery time, until good vision, can take 12 to 18 months.
Advantages and Disadvantages of DSEK Technique
Researchers and surgeons have long known that for many patients only the
diseased or missing endothelial cells need to be replaced. The other layers were
normal. Recently, a new technique called DSEK has been developed. It replaces
only the endothelial cell layer. A thin button of donor tissue with only the
endothelial cell layer is inserted onto the back surface of the patient’s cornea. This
new technique appears to be a big improvement over the standard operation.
There are several major advantages to the DSEK operation.
The operation is faster (60 to 90 minutes).
The wound is smaller and closer in size and location to a cataract surgery
The smaller wound is more stable and less likely to break open from trauma.
Because the wound is smaller and requires fewer sutures, there is very little
Recovery takes only about 3 to 4 months.
Since only the thin inner layer of the cornea is replaced, over 90% of the
patient’s own cornea remains behind. This adds to greater structural
integrity and reduced chance of rejection.
DSEK is not for everyone. Some patients with corneal scarring or other conditions
are not good candidates for DSEK. There are risks involved with the DSEK
Since DSEK has been done since 2005, there is no long-term follow-up.
There is a 10% risk of the graft becoming displaced within the first few days
or weeks after surgery. This means the graft must be redone with a
replacement air bubble in the eye.
If the DSEK operation fails, the operation can be repeated with another
button of donor endothelium.
If the DSEK fails, a traditional corneal transplant can be done.
The DSEK Surgery
Donor corneal tissue is obtained from an Eye Bank for the day of your surgery. In
a pre-operative area, you will be given eye drops. An IV line will be placed in
your hand. While you are briefly asleep, the eye is anesthetized with a numbing
injection. A 5mm incision is made at the edge of the cornea. If cataract surgery is
planned, the cataract is removed using a standard technique. Your cornea is
marked on the outside to guide removal of the diseased Descemet’s membrane and
endothelium from the inside of your eye. Descemet’s membrane is stripped and
removed from your eye. The new donor cornea is cut to match the size of the
membrane removed from the eye. The donor tissue is folded gently and placed
into your eye. The graft is then unfolded and secured in the correct place on the
cornea using an air bubble that is injected into the eye. As the air bubble seals the
newly transplanted tissue in place, dilating eye drops are given. Some of the air is
removed from the eye to make the eye pressure normal. The incision sites are
tested and closed with 2 to 3 small sutures. You will be moved to the recovery
In the recovery room, you will lie on your back for 1 hour so that the air bubble
can keep helping to maintain pressure against the back of the cornea so the new
tissue stays in place. You are also asked to remain flat on your back as much as
you can at home for the first 24 hours after the surgery. Your eye will be patched
shut over night. You are seen in the eye clinic the next day.
Risks of DSEK Surgery
The risks of the DSEK include
ξ Hemorrhage in the eye
ξ Swelling of the retina causing temporary or permanent blurring of vision
ξ A retinal detachment
ξ Glaucoma or high pressure in the eye
ξ Rejection of the transplanted tissue
ξ Chronic inflammation
ξ Double vision
ξ A droopy eyelid
ξ Loss of corneal clarity
ξ Poor vision
ξ Total loss of vision
ξ Loss of the eye
ξ Graft dislocation
Rarely, the transmission of infectious diseases can occur such as Hepatitis, AIDS,
and syphilis, although the corneal donor is routinely tested for these diseases
before the tissue is approved and released for transplantation.
There may also be complications from the local anesthesia including
ξ Perforation of the eyeball
ξ Damage to the optic nerve
ξ Droopy eyelid
ξ Problems with the circulation of the blood vessels in the retina
ξ Respiratory depression
ξ Rarely, useful vision can be permanently lost.
When to Call the Doctor
ξ New or increased drainage from the treated eye.
ξ Increased or a change in eye pain.
ξ Increased redness of the eye.
ξ Decreased clearness of vision in the treated eye.
ξ If you have any questions.
Early attention to problems often results in simple, successful treatment so don’t
delay. Putting off a call or visit may lead to worse problems.
University Station Eye Clinic, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday
When the clinic is closed, your call will be forwarded to the hospital paging
operator. Ask for the “Eye Resident on Call”. Give the operator your name and
phone number with area code. The doctor will call you back.
If you live out of the area, call 1-800-323-8942 and ask to be transferred to the
Please call if you have any questions or concerns
Spanish HFFY #7258
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright © 1/2016. University of Wisconsin Hospital
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#6967