Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the major cause of blindness in the elderly. Those with the neovascular end-stage of disease have irreversible loss of central vision. AMD is a complex disorder in which genetic and environmental factors play a role. Polymorphisms in the complement factor H (CFH) gene, LOC387715, and the HTRA1 promoter are strongly associated with AMD. Smoking also contributes to the etiology. We aimed to provide a model of disease risk based on these factors.
Methods and Findings
We genotyped polymorphisms in CFH and LOC387715/HTRA1 in a case–control study of 401 patients with neovascular AMD and 266 controls without signs of disease, and used the data to produce genetic risk scores for the European-descent population based on haplotypes at these loci and smoking history. CFH and LOC387715/HTRA1 haplotypes and smoking status exerted large effects on AMD susceptibility, enabling risk scores to be generated with appropriate weighting of these three factors. Five common haplotypes of CFH conferred a range of odds ratios (ORs) per copy from 1 to 4.17. Most of the effect of LOC387715/HTRA1 was mediated through one detrimental haplotype (carriage of one copy: OR 2.83; 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.91–4.20), with homozygotes being at particularly high risk (OR 32.83; 95% CI 12.53–86.07). Patients with neovascular macular degeneration had considerably higher scores than those without disease, and risk of blinding AMD rose to 15.5% in the tenth of the population with highest predicted risk.
An individual's risk of developing AMD in old age can be predicted by combining haplotype data with smoking status. Until there is effective treatment for AMD, encouragement to avoid smoking in those at high genetic risk may be the best option. We estimate that total absence of smoking would have reduced the prevalence of severe AMD by 33%. Unless smoking habits change or preventative treatment becomes available, the prevalence of AMD will rise as a consequence of the increasing longevity of the population.
Anne Hughes and colleagues show that an individual's risk of developing age-related macular degeneration in old age can be predicted by combining haplotype data with smoking status.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in the elderly. The macula is the central region of the retina, the tissue at the back of the eye that converts light into electrical messages and sends them to the brain. In the commonest form of AMD—“dry” AMD—the light-sensitive cells in the macula gradually die. In “wet” or “neovascular” AMD (one in 10 cases of AMD, but responsible for 90% of severe AMD-related blindness), abnormal blood vessels grow below the macula. Fluid leaking out of these vessels dislodges and damages the macula, after which loss of vision occurs rapidly. Both forms of AMD destroy the sharp central vision that is needed for reading and driving, leaving only dim, blurred images or a black hole at the center of vision. Neither form can be cured but with wet AMD the loss of vision can sometimes be slowed or halted if caught early by destroying the new blood vessels with laser surgery or a technique called photodynamic therapy or by blocking their formation by injecting special drugs into the eye.
Why Was This Study Done?
No-one knows what causes AMD but factors that increase a person's risk of developing the disease include increasing age, smoking, being white, and a family history of AMD. Recently, researchers have identified several “polymorphisms” (inherited DNA sequence variations that are common within populations) that are associated with AMD. These polymorphisms are in the complement factor H gene (the scientific symbol for this gene is CFH) and in a gene region called LOC387715/HTRA1. It would be useful to be able to use these risk factors to identify those people at the highest risk of developing neovascular AMD before the disease damages their vision. In this study, the researchers have investigated the association between AMD and polymorphisms in CFH and LOC387715/HTRA1 in more depth. They have then used this new information to build a model of AMD risk that should allow physicians to identify individuals at high risk of developing neovascular AMD.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers catalogued polymorphisms in CFH and LOC387715/HTRA1 in several hundred people with and without neovascular AMD. From these data, they identified three haplotypes (sets of polymorphisms that are inherited as a unit; everyone inherits two copies of each haplotype, one from each parent) in CFH that were more common in people with AMD than in those without and two that were associated with a decreased risk of developing AMD. In LOC387715/HTRA1 they identified one particularly detrimental haplotype. Compared to people without this haplotype, people with one copy of the deleterious haplotype were three times as likely to develop neovascular AMD; people with two copies were thirty times as likely to develop AMD. Smoking history also had a large effect on susceptibility to AMD. The researchers then developed a simple AMD risk scoring system based on CFH and LOC387715/HTRA1haplotypes and smoking status. From this, they calculated that people with the lowest risk scores have a minimal risk of developing AMD whereas about 15% of people with the highest risk scores are likely to develop AMD.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that it is possible to predict an individual's risk of developing AMD in old age by examining a small number of haplotypes and asking about their smoking status. The model developed by the researchers needs to be validated in other groups of people and may have to be modified if other gene variants that affect the risk of AMD are identified. For now, the results of this research provide physicians with a way to identify those individuals at the highest genetic risk of developing AMD so that they can step up their efforts to persuade these people to avoid smoking. In the future, when effective long-term treatments for AMD become available, the scoring system could also help doctors decide which of their elderly patients should be monitored most intensively for the early signs of AMD so that they can be treated before their vision is irreversibly damaged.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040355.
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 speech information about AMD
The US National Eye Institute and the UK Royal National Institute of Blind People also provide information about AMD