An integrated hypothesis that considers drusen as biomarkers of immune-mediated processes at the RPE-Bruch's membrane interface in aging and age-related macular degeneration

Prog Retin Eye Res. 2001 Nov;20(6):705-32. doi: 10.1016/s1350-9462(01)00010-6.


Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a blinding disease that afflicts millions of adults in the Western world. Although it has been proposed that a threshold event occurs during normal aging which leads to AMD, the sequelae of biochemical, cellular, and/or molecular events leading to the development of AMD are poorly understood. Although available data provide strong evidence that a significant proportion of AMD has a genetic basis, no gene(s) has yet been identified that causes a significant proportion of AMD. Moreover, no major molecular pathways involved in the etiology of this disease have been elucidated.Drusen, pathological deposits that form between the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) and Bruch's membrane, are significant risk factors for the development of AMD. In our view, the development of testable new hypotheses of drusen origins has been hindered significantly by the absence of a comprehensive profile of their molecular composition. In this review, we describe an integrated ultrastructural, histochemical, molecular biological, and biochemical approach to identify specific molecular pathways associated with drusen biogenesis. The implicit assumption underlying these recent investigations has been that a thorough understanding of the composition of drusen and source(s) of drusen-associated material is likely to provide fresh insight into the pathobiology underlying AMD. Significantly, these studies have revealed that proteins associated with inflammation and immune-mediated processes are prevalent among drusen-associated constituents. Transcripts that encode a number of these molecules have been detected in retinal, RPE, and choroidal cells. These data have also lead to the observations that dendritic cells, potent antigen-presenting cells, are intimately associated with drusen development and that complement activation is a key pathway that is active both within drusen and along the RPE-choroid interface. We propose herein a unifying hypothesis of drusen biogenesis that attempts to incorporate a large body of new and previously published structural, histochemical, and molecular data pertaining to drusen composition and development. This theory is put forth with the acknowledgment that numerous AMD genotypes may exist. Thus, only some aspects of the proposed hypothesis may be involved in any given AMD genotype. Importantly, this hypothesis invokes, for the first time, the potential for a direct role of cell- and immune-mediated processes in drusen biogenesis. We acknowledge that the proposed hypothesis clearly represents a paradigm shift in our conceptualization pertaining to pathways that participate in the development of drusen and age-related macular degeneration. It is our hope that other investigators will test, validate and/or refute various aspects of this hypothesis, and in so doing, increase our overall understanding of the biological pathways associated with early AMD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology*
  • Biomarkers
  • Bruch Membrane / immunology*
  • Bruch Membrane / pathology
  • Dendritic Cells / immunology
  • Eye Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immune System
  • Macular Degeneration / etiology
  • Macular Degeneration / immunology*
  • Macular Degeneration / pathology
  • Philosophy
  • Pigment Epithelium of Eye / immunology*
  • Pigment Epithelium of Eye / pathology
  • Retinal Drusen / complications
  • Retinal Drusen / immunology*
  • Retinal Drusen / pathology


  • Biomarkers
  • Eye Proteins