Optimal phototransduction requires separation of the avascular photoreceptor layer from the adjacent vascularized inner retina and choroid. Breakdown of peri-photoreceptor vascular demarcation leads to retinal angiomatous proliferation or choroidal neovascularization, two variants of vascular invasion of the photoreceptor layer in age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of irreversible blindness in industrialized nations. Here we show that sFLT-1, an endogenous inhibitor of vascular endothelial growth factor A (VEGF-A), is synthesized by photoreceptors and retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), and is decreased in human AMD. Suppression of sFLT-1 by antibodies, adeno-associated virus-mediated RNA interference, or Cre/lox-mediated gene ablation either in the photoreceptor layer or RPE frees VEGF-A and abolishes photoreceptor avascularity. These findings help explain the vascular zoning of the retina, which is critical for vision, and advance two transgenic murine models of AMD with spontaneous vascular invasion early in life.
The inner surface of the vertebrate eye is lined with a multilayered structure known as the retina. The bottom layer of the retina is composed of rods and cones—neurons that are directly sensitive to light—and is called the photoreceptor layer. Rods function primarily in dim light and provide black-and-white vision, while cones support daytime vision and are responsible for colour perception. Unlike the upper layers of the retina, the photoreceptor layer does not contain blood vessels: oxygen and nutrients are instead provided by a structure just underneath the retina called the choroid.
The eye relies on the rods and cones converting light into electrical signals, and the photoreceptor layer must remain free of blood vessels for this process to work properly. If blood vessels extend into the photoreceptor layer from rest of the retina (which is above it) or the choroid (below), they can disrupt the retina and give rise to a condition called age-related macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of irreversible blindness in adults.
Within the eye, the development of new blood vessels from pre-existing vessels is stimulated by a protein known as vascular endothelial growth factor A (VEGF-A), while an inhibitor protein called sFLT-1 prevents the growth of new blood vessels in the other tissues of the eye like the cornea. However, it has not been clear what keeps the photoreceptor layer (and also the cells that support the photoreceptor layer) free of blood vessels, and what happens to disrupt this process of vascular demarcation in age-related macular degeneration.
Now, Luo et al. reveal that cells in the photoreceptor layer produce sFLT-1, and that the levels of this protein are indeed reduced in people with age-related macular degeneration. Using genetic and pharmacological methods, they show that a reduction in sFLT-1 triggers blood vessels to grow into the photoreceptor layer from above or below. Luo et al. also report two new genetic mouse models in which blood vessels form spontaneously in the photoreceptor layer at an early age, which should prove useful for further research into age-related macular degeneration.