PURPOSE: Investigators have discovered that topical antiglaucoma drugs may induce meibomian gland dysfunction. This response may contribute to the dry eye disease commonly found in patients with glaucoma taking such medications. We hypothesize that drug action involves a direct effect on human meibomian gland epithelial cells (HMGECs). To test this hypothesis, we examined the influence of the antiglaucoma drugs, pilocarpine and timolol, on the morphology, survival, proliferation, and differentiation of HMGECs. METHODS: Immortalized (I) HMGECs (n = 2-3 wells/treatment/experiment) were cultured with multiple concentrations of pilocarpine or timolol for up to 7 days. Experiments included positive controls for proliferation (epidermal growth factor and bovine pituitary extract) and differentiation (azithromycin). Cells were enumerated using a hemocytometer and evaluated for morphology, neutral lipid staining, and lysosome accumulation. RESULTS: Our results demonstrate that pilocarpine and timolol cause a dose-dependent decrease in the survival of IHMGECs. The clinically used concentrations are toxic and lead to cell atrophy, poor adherence, or death. By contrast, drug levels that are known to accumulate within the conjunctiva, adjacent to the meibomian glands, do not influence IHMGEC survival. These latter concentrations also have no effect on IHMGEC proliferation or differentiation, and they do not interfere with the ability of azithromycin to stimulate cellular neutral lipid and lysosome accumulation. This dose of pilocarpine, though, did suppress the epidermal growth factor+bovine pituitary extract-induced proliferation of IHMGECs. CONCLUSIONS: Our results support our hypothesis and demonstrate that these antiglaucoma drugs, pilocarpine and timolol, have direct effects on HMGECs that may influence their morphology, survival, and proliferative capacity.