Mutations in the PDE6A gene can cause rod photoreceptors degeneration and the blinding disease retinitis pigmentosa (RP). While a number of pathogenic PDE6A mutations have been described, little is known about their impact on compound heterozygous situations and potential interactions of different disease-causing alleles. Here, we used a novel mouse model for the Pde6a R562W mutation in combination with an existing line carrying the V685M mutation to generate compound heterozygous Pde6a V685M/R562W animals, exactly homologous to a case of human RP. We compared the progression of photoreceptor degeneration in these compound heterozygous mice with the homozygous V685M and R562W mutants, and additionally with the D670G line that is known for a relatively mild phenotype. We investigated PDE6A expression, cyclic guanosine mono-phosphate accumulation, calpain and caspase activity, in vivo retinal function and morphology, as well as photoreceptor cell death and survival. This analysis confirms the severity of different Pde6a mutations and indicates that compound heterozygous mutants behave like intermediates of the respective homozygous situations. Specifically, the severity of the four different Pde6a situations may be categorized by the pace of photoreceptor degeneration: V685M (fastest) > V685M/R562W > R562W > D670G (slowest). While calpain activity was strongly increased in all four mutants, caspase activity was not. This points to the execution of non-apoptotic cell death and may lead to the identification of new targets for therapeutic interventions. For individual RP patients, our study may help to predict time-courses for Pde6a-related retinal degeneration and thereby facilitate the definition of a window-of-opportunity for clinical interventions.
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