Purpose: The accumulation of numerous or confluent drusen, especially in the macula, is a significant risk factor for the development of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Identifying the origin and molecular composition of these deposits, therefore, has been an important, yet elusive, objective for many decades. Recently, a more complete profile of the molecular composition of drusen has emerged.
Design: In this focused review, we discuss these new findings and their implications for the pathogenic events that give rise to drusen and AMD.
Methods: Tissue specimens from one or both eyes of more than 400 human donors were examined by light, confocal or electron microscopy, in conjunction with antibodies to specific drusen-associated proteins, to help characterize the transitional events in drusen biogenesis. Quantification of messenger RNA from the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE)/choroid of donor eyes was used to determine if local ocular sources for drusen-associated molecules exist.
Results: The results indicate that cellular remnants and debris derived from degenerate RPE cells become sequestered between the RPE basal lamina and Bruch's membrane. We propose that this cellular debris constitutes a chronic inflammatory stimulus, and a potential "nucleation" site for drusen formation. The entrapped cellular debris then becomes the target of encapsulation by a variety of inflammatory mediators, some of which are contributed by the RPE and, perhaps, other local cell types; and some of which are extravasated from the choroidal circulation.
Conclusions: The results support a role for local inflammation in drusen biogenesis, and suggest that it is analogous to the process that occurs in other age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and atherosclerosis, where accumulation of extracellular plaques and deposits elicits a local chronic inflammatory response that exacerbates the effects of primary pathogenic stimuli.