RPE65 is an essential molecule in the retinoid-visual cycle, and RPE65 gene mutations cause the congenital human blindness known as Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA). Somatic gene therapy delivered to the retina of blind dogs with an RPE65 mutation dramatically restores retinal physiology and has sparked international interest in human treatment trials for this incurable disease. An unanswered question is how the visual cortex responds after prolonged sensory deprivation from retinal dysfunction. We therefore studied the cortex of RPE65-mutant dogs before and after retinal gene therapy. Then, we inquired whether there is visual pathway integrity and responsivity in adult humans with LCA due to RPE65 mutations (RPE65-LCA).
Methods and Findings
RPE65-mutant dogs were studied with fMRI. Prior to therapy, retinal and subcortical responses to light were markedly diminished, and there were minimal cortical responses within the primary visual areas of the lateral gyrus (activation amplitude mean ± standard deviation [SD] = 0.07% ± 0.06% and volume = 1.3 ± 0.6 cm3). Following therapy, retinal and subcortical response restoration was accompanied by increased amplitude (0.18% ± 0.06%) and volume (8.2 ± 0.8 cm3) of activation within the lateral gyrus (p < 0.005 for both). Cortical recovery occurred rapidly (within a month of treatment) and was persistent (as long as 2.5 y after treatment). Recovery was present even when treatment was provided as late as 1–4 y of age. Human RPE65-LCA patients (ages 18–23 y) were studied with structural magnetic resonance imaging. Optic nerve diameter (3.2 ± 0.5 mm) was within the normal range (3.2 ± 0.3 mm), and occipital cortical white matter density as judged by voxel-based morphometry was slightly but significantly altered (1.3 SD below control average, p = 0.005). Functional magnetic resonance imaging in human RPE65-LCA patients revealed cortical responses with a markedly diminished activation volume (8.8 ± 1.2 cm3) compared to controls (29.7 ± 8.3 cm3, p < 0.001) when stimulated with lower intensity light. Unexpectedly, cortical response volume (41.2 ± 11.1 cm3) was comparable to normal (48.8 ± 3.1 cm3, p = 0.2) with higher intensity light stimulation.
Visual cortical responses dramatically improve after retinal gene therapy in the canine model of RPE65-LCA. Human RPE65-LCA patients have preserved visual pathway anatomy and detectable cortical activation despite limited visual experience. Taken together, the results support the potential for human visual benefit from retinal therapies currently being aimed at restoring vision to the congenitally blind with genetic retinal disease.
The study by Samuel Jacobson and colleagues suggests that retinal gene therapy can improve retinal, visual pathway, and visual cortex responses to light stimulation, even after prolonged periods of blindness and in congenitally blind patients.
The eye captures light but the brain is where vision is experienced. Treatments for childhood blindness at the eye level are ready, but it is unknown whether the brain will be receptive to an improved neural message. Normal vision begins as photoreceptor cells in the retina (the light-sensitive tissue lining the inside of the eye) convert visual images into electrical impulses. These impulses are sent along the optic nerve to the visual cortex, the brain region where they are interpreted. The conversion of light into electrical impulses requires the activation of a molecule called retinal, which is subsequently recycled by retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) cells neighboring the retina. One of the key enzymes of the recycling reactions is encoded by a gene called RPE65. Genetic changes (mutations) in RPE65 cause an inherited form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA). In this disease, retinal is not recycled and as a result, the photoreceptor cells cannot work properly and affected individuals have poor or nonexistent vision from birth. Previous studies in dog and mouse models of the human disease have demonstrated that the introduction of a functional copy of RPE65 into the RPE cells using a harmless virus (gene therapy) dramatically restores retinal activity. Very recently, a pioneering gene therapy operation took place in London (UK) where surgeons injected a functional copy of RPE65 into the retina of a man with LCA. Whether this operation results in improved vision is not known at this time.
Why Was This Study Done?
Gene therapy corrects the retinal defects in animal models of LCA but whether the visual pathway from the retina to the visual cortex of the brain can respond normally to the signals sent by the restored retina is not known. Early visual experience is thought to be necessary for the development of a functional visual cortex, so replacing the defective RPE65 gene might not improve the vision of people with LCA. In this study, the researchers have studied the visual cortex of RPE65-deficient dogs before and after gene therapy to see whether the therapy affects the activity of the visual cortex. They have also investigated visual pathway integrity and responsiveness in adults with LCA caused by RPE65 mutations. If the visual pathway is disrupted in these patients, they reasoned, gene therapy might not restore their vision.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure light-induced brain activity in RPE65-deficient dogs before and after gene therapy. They also examined the reactions of the dogs' pupils to light (in LCA, the pupils do not contract normally in response to light because there is reduced signal transmission along the visual pathway). Finally, they measured the electrical activity of the dogs' retinas in response to light flashes—the retinas of patients with LCA do not react to light. Gene therapy corrected the defective retinal and visual pathway responses to light in the RPE65-deficient dogs and, whereas before treatment there was no response in the visual cortex to light stimulation in these dogs, after treatment, its activity approached that seen in normal dogs. The recovery of cortical responses was permanent and occurred soon after treatment, even in animals that were 4 years old when treated. Next, using structural MRI, the researchers studied human patients with LCA and found that the optic nerve diameter in young adults was within the normal range and that the structure of the visual cortex was very similar to that of normal individuals. Finally, using fMRI, they found that, although the visual cortex of patients with LCA did not respond to dim light, its reaction to bright light was comparable to that of normal individuals.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The findings from the dog study indicate that retinal gene therapy rapidly improves retinal, visual pathway, and visual cortex responses to light stimulation, even in animals that have been blind for years. In other words, in the dog model of LCA at least, all the components of the visual system remain receptive to visual inputs even after long periods of visual deprivation. The findings from the human study also indicate that the visual pathway remains anatomically intact despite years of disuse and that the visual cortex can be activated in patients with LCA even though these people have very limited visual experience. Taken together, these findings suggest that successful gene therapy of the retina might restore some functional vision to people with LCA but proof will have to await the outcomes of several clinical trials ongoing or being planned in Europe and the USA.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040230.
General information on gene therapy is available from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Information is provided by the BBC about gene therapy for Leber congenital amaurosis (includes an audio clip from a doctor about the operation)
The National Institutes of Health/National Eye Institute (US) provides information about an ongoing gene therapy trial of RPE65-Leber congenital amaurosis
ClinicalTrials.gov gives details on treatment trials for Leber congenital amaurosis
The Foundation Fighting Blindness has a fact sheet on Leber congenital amaurosis (site includes Microsoft Webspeak links that read some content aloud)
The Foundation for Retinal Research has a fact sheet on Leber congenital amaurosis
Find more detailed information on Leber congenital amaurosis and the gene mutations that cause it from GeneReviews
WonderBaby, information for parents of babies with Leber congenital amaurosis