Purpose: To investigate the role of the gap junction protein, connexin-43 (Cx43) in the maintenance of retinal vascular homeostasis in diabetic retinopathy.
Methods: In human retinal pericytes (HRPs) and bovine retinal pericytes (BRPs) grown for 7 days in normal (5 mM) or high (30 mM)-glucose medium, the Cx43 protein level was determined by Western blot analysis. Parallel experiments were performed in HRPs to determine the Cx43 mRNA level by RT-PCR, the distribution and localization of Cx43 protein by immunostaining, and gap junction intercellular communication (GJIC) activity by a scrape-loading dye transfer technique. Distribution and localization of Cx43 protein was also determined in pericyte-endothelial cell cocultures.
Results: Western blot analysis of the Cx43 protein level in HRPs and BRPs indicated reduced Cx43 expression in the high-glucose condition (69.1% +/- 17% of control, P = 0.004; 62.3% +/- 19% of control, P = 0.001, respectively). The Cx43 mRNA level in HRPs grown in high-glucose medium also showed significant reduction (71.4% +/- 16.8% of control, P = 0.02). The relative number of Cx43 plaques indicative of Cx43 localization at specific sites of contact between adjacent cells showed significant reduction in the high-glucose condition (61% +/- 10% of control, P = 0.002); similarly, a significant reduction in the number of plaques was observed in cocultures grown in high-glucose medium compared with those in normal medium (59.4% +/- 29% of control, P = 0.001). Cells with reduced Cx43 expression showed significantly reduced transfer of lucifer yellow (61% +/- 13% of control, P = 0.001; r = 0.9).
Conclusions: High-glucose-induced downregulation of Cx43 expression and inhibition of GJIC in retinal pericytes may play a role in the disruption of vascular homeostasis in diabetic retinopathy.