In the Western world, a major cause of blindness is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Recent research in angiogenesis has furthered the understanding of choroidal neovascularization, which occurs in the “wet” form of AMD. In contrast, very little is known about the mechanisms of the predominant, “dry” form of AMD, which is characterized by retinal atrophy and choroidal involution. The aim of this study is to elucidate the possible implication of the scavenger receptor CD36 in retinal degeneration and choroidal involution, the cardinal features of the dry form of AMD.
Methods and Findings
We here show that deficiency of CD36, which participates in outer segment (OS) phagocytosis by the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) in vitro, leads to significant progressive age-related photoreceptor degeneration evaluated histologically at different ages in two rodent models of CD36 invalidation in vivo (Spontaneous hypertensive rats (SHR) and CD36−/− mice). Furthermore, these animals developed significant age related choroidal involution reflected in a 100%–300% increase in the avascular area of the choriocapillaries measured on vascular corrosion casts of aged animals. We also show that proangiogenic COX2 expression in RPE is stimulated by CD36 activating antibody and that CD36-deficient RPE cells from SHR rats fail to induce COX2 and subsequent vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) expression upon OS or antibody stimulation in vitro. CD36−/− mice express reduced levels of COX2 and VEGF in vivo, and COX2−/− mice develop progressive choroidal degeneration similar to what is seen in CD36 deficiency.
CD36 deficiency leads to choroidal involution via COX2 down-regulation in the RPE. These results show a novel molecular mechanism of choroidal degeneration, a key feature of dry AMD. These findings unveil a pathogenic process, to our knowledge previously undescribed, with important implications for the development of new therapies.
Florian Sennelaub and colleagues show that CD36 deficiency leads to choroidal involution, a key feature of "dry" age-related macular degeneration, via COX-2 down-regulation in the retinal pigment epithelium.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in the elderly in industrialized countries. The macula is the central region of the retina, the tissue at the back of the eye that detects light and converts it into electrical messages that are sent to the brain. In the commonest form of AMD—“dry” AMD—the light-sensitive cells in the retina (the photoreceptors) gradually die. This degeneration might occur because of damage to the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). This layer of dark cells lies between the photoreceptors and the choroid, the layer of the eye that contains blood vessels and brings oxygen to the retina. The RPE keeps the retina healthy by transferring the right amount of oxygen and nutrients from the choroid to the retina and by removing worn-out photoreceptor outer segments (the part of the photoreceptor that actually absorbs light) in a process called phagocytosis (engulfment and digestion). In addition to photoreceptor degeneration and RPE shrinkage, a layer of the choroid rich in small blood vessels (the choriocapillaris) also shrinks in dry AMD. For affected individuals, all these changes (which experts describe as retinal atrophy and choroidal involution) mean that the sharp central vision that is needed for reading and driving is destroyed, leaving only dim, burred images or a black hole at the center of the vision.
Why Was This Study Done?
Little is known about the molecular mechanisms that underlie dry AMD and, consequently, there is no cure for it. In this study, the researchers have tested whether a molecule called CD36, which is expressed on the surface of RPE cells, is involved in dry AMD. CD36 is a scavenger receptor—which means it binds many potentially harmful molecules including oxidized fats (which are present in the photoreceptor outer segments) and is involved in their phagocytosis. Phagocytosis itself induces the expression of several proteins in the RPE cells, including COX2, a “proangiogenic” protein that stimulates the growth of blood vessels. Putting this information together, the researchers hypothesized that a defect in CD36 might cause the characteristic retinal atrophy (by preventing the phagocytosis of worn-out photoreceptor outer segments) and choroidal involution (by preventing the induction of COX2 expression and consequently the maintenance of the blood vessels in the choroid) of dry AMD.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers first show that retinal degeneration occurs in rats and mice that express no CD36. This degeneration (which included a reduction in the thickness of the retina, the presence of irregularly shaped photoreceptor outer segments, and the detachment of these structures from the RPE) was seen in old but not young animals. Choroidal involution was also seen in these CD36-deficient animals. This change was present in young mice and rats but increased with age so that by one year old, the choriocapillaris looked moth-eaten. Next, the researchers show that although RPE cells taken from normal animals and grown in dishes were able to make COX2 in response to exposure to purified photoreceptor outer segments, RPE cells from CD36-deficient animals did not. The expression of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF; a protein that is needed for normal choroidal development and whose expression is controlled by COX2) showed a similar pattern. Finally, the researchers report that COX2 deficiency in mice caused similar age-dependent choroidal involution and similar effects on VEGF expression in RPE cells as CD36 deficiency.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that CD36 deficiency leads to progressive, age-related degeneration of photoreceptors and choroidal involution in rats and mice. They also show that CD36 deficiency causes this choroidal involution, the key feature of dry AMD, because it leads to down-regulation of COX2 expression (and subsequently reduced VEGF expression) in the RPE. Researchers now need to find out whether this mechanism for the development of dry AMD holds in people—what happens in animals does not necessarily happen in people. If it does, pharmacological activation of CD36 or restoration of CD36 expression in the RPE might eventually provide a way to treat dry AMD.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050039.
MedlinePlus provides links to information on macular degeneration and an encyclopedia page on macular degeneration (in English and Spanish)
Pages on the US National Institutes of Health NIH SeniorHealth site provides text and spoken information about AMD
The US National Eye Institute and the UK Royal National Institute of Blind People also provide information about AMD
Wikipedia has pages on the retina, photoreceptor cells, retinal pigment epithelium, and choroid (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)