Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a genetically heterogenous group of eye diseases in which initial degeneration of rods triggers secondary degeneration of cones, leading to significant loss of daylight, color, and high-acuity vision. Gene complementation with adeno-associated viral (AAV) vectors is one strategy to treat RP. Its implementation faces substantial challenges, however — e.g., the tremendous number of loci with causal mutations. Gene therapy targeting secondary cone degeneration is an alternative approach that could provide a much-needed generic treatment for many RP patients. Here, we show that microglia are required for the upregulation of potentially neurotoxic inflammatory factors during cone degeneration in RP, creating conditions that might contribute to cone dysfunction and death. To ameliorate the effects of such factors, we used AAV vectors to express isoforms of the anti-inflammatory cytokine transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-β). AAV-mediated delivery of TGF-β1 rescued degenerating cones in three mouse models of RP carrying different pathogenic mutations. Treatment with TGF-β1 protected vision, as measured by two behavioral assays, and could be pharmacologically disrupted by either depleting microglia or blocking the TGF-β receptors. Our results suggest that TGF-β1 may be broadly beneficial for patients with cone degeneration, and potentially other forms of neurodegeneration, through a pathway dependent upon microglia.
Sean K. Wang, Yunlu Xue, Constance L. Cepko