Retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cell dysfunction plays a central role in various retinal degenerative diseases, but knowledge is limited regarding the pathways responsible for adult RPE stress responses in vivo. RPE mitochondrial dysfunction has been implicated in the pathogenesis of several forms of retinal degeneration. Here we have shown that postnatal ablation of RPE mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation in mice triggers gradual epithelium dedifferentiation, typified by reduction of RPE-characteristic proteins and cellular hypertrophy. The electrical response of the retina to light decreased and photoreceptors eventually degenerated. Abnormal RPE cell behavior was associated with increased glycolysis and activation of, and dependence upon, the hepatocyte growth factor/met proto-oncogene pathway. RPE dedifferentiation and hypertrophy arose through stimulation of the AKT/mammalian target of rapamycin (AKT/mTOR) pathway. Administration of an oxidant to wild-type mice also caused RPE dedifferentiation and mTOR activation. Importantly, treatment with the mTOR inhibitor rapamycin blunted key aspects of dedifferentiation and preserved photoreceptor function for both insults. These results reveal an in vivo response of the mature RPE to diverse stressors that prolongs RPE cell survival at the expense of epithelial attributes and photoreceptor function. Our findings provide a rationale for mTOR pathway inhibition as a therapeutic strategy for retinal degenerative diseases involving RPE stress.
Chen Zhao, Douglas Yasumura, Xiyan Li, Michael Matthes, Marcia Lloyd, Gregory Nielsen, Kelly Ahern, Michael Snyder, Dean Bok, Joshua L. Dunaief, Matthew M. LaVail, Douglas Vollrath