Breakdown of the inner endothelial blood-retinal barrier (BRB), as occurs in diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration, retinal vein occlusions, uveitis and other chronic retinal diseases, results in vasogenic edema and neural tissue damage, causing loss of vision. The central mechanism of altered BRB function is a change in the permeability characteristics of retinal endothelial cells caused by elevated levels of growth factors, cytokines, advanced glycation end products, inflammation, hyperglycemia and loss of pericytes. Subsequently, paracellular but also transcellular transport across the retinal vascular wall increases via opening of endothelial intercellular junctions and qualitative and quantitative changes in endothelial caveolar transcellular transport, respectively. Functional changes in pericytes and astrocytes, as well as structural changes in the composition of the endothelial glycocalyx and the basal lamina around BRB endothelium further facilitate BRB leakage. As Starling's rules apply, active transcellular transport of plasma proteins by the BRB endothelial cells causing increased interstitial osmotic pressure is probably the main factor in the formation of macular edema. The understanding of the complex cellular and molecular processes involved in BRB leakage has grown rapidly in recent years. Although appropriate animal models for human conditions like diabetic macular edema are lacking, these insights have provided tools for rational design of drugs aimed at restoring the BRB as well as for design of effective transport of drugs across the BRB, to treat the chronic retinal diseases such as diabetic macular edema that affect the quality-of-life of millions of patients.
2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.