BACKGROUND Degeneration of cone photoreceptors leads to loss of vision in patients suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and other cone dystrophies. Evidence, such as choroidal ischemia and decreased choroidal blood flow, implicates reduced tissue oxygenation in AMD pathology and suggests a role of the cellular response to hypoxia in disease onset and progression. Such a chronic hypoxic situation may promote several cellular responses including stabilization of hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs).
METHODS To investigate the consequence of a chronic activation of the molecular response to hypoxia in cones, von Hippel Lindau protein (VHL) was specifically ablated in cones of the all-cone R91W;Nrlmouse. Retinal function and morphology was evaluated by ERG and light microscopy, while differential gene expression was tested by real-time PCR. Retinal vasculature was analyzed by immunostainings and fluorescein angiography. Two-way ANOVA with Šídák's multiple comparison test was performed for statistical analysis.
RESULTS Cone-specific ablation of Vhl resulted in stabilization and activation of hypoxia-inducible factor 1A (HIF1A) which led to increased expression of genes associated with hypoxia and retinal stress. Our data demonstrate severe cone degeneration and pathologic vessel growth, features that are central to AMD pathology. Subretinal neovascularization was accompanied by vascular leakage and infiltration of microglia cells. Interestingly, we observed increased expression of tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase 3 (Timp3) during the aging process, a gene associated with AMD and Bruch's membrane integrity. Additional deletion of Hif1a protected cone cells, prevented pathological vessel growth and preserved vision.
CONCLUSIONS Our data provide evidence for a HIF1A-mediated mechanism leading to pathological vessel growth and cone degeneration in response to a chronic hypoxia-like situation. Consequently, our results identify HIF1A as a potential therapeutic target to rescue hypoxia-related vision loss in patients.