Purpose: Increasing evidence suggests that nerve growth factor (NGF) exerts protective effects against retinal degeneration in animal models of retinitis pigmentosa (RP). This study aims at investigating the effects of intravitreal injection of recombinant human NGF (rhNGF) on retinal photoreceptors apoptosis in an animal model of RP, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) rats.
Methods: Thirty-six RCS rats were treated with intravitreal injection of rhNGF or murine NGF (mNGF) or vehicle at 20 postnatal days (pd) and sacrificed at 40 pd. The eyes were enucleated and evaluated by histology, flow cytometric analysis for rhodopsin expression, Western blot for TrkA and activated (phosphorylated) TrkA (pTrkA) levels, and TUNEL assay for apoptosis' detection.
Results: RCS rats showed a significant retinal degeneration associated with cell apoptosis at 40 pd when compared to wild-type animals. Histology showed that rhNGF intravitreal treatment significantly increased retinal thickness when compared to untreated eyes. Photoreceptors' number evaluated by flow cytometry was significantly increased in both intravitreal rhNGF- and mNGF-treated groups when compared to untreated eyes. This protective effect was associated with an increase in TrkA and activated pTrkA levels and an inhibition of apoptosis. Intravitreal NGF injection was well tolerated and did not show clinical and histological signs of adverse effects.
Conclusions: Intravitreal rhNGF injection proved safe and effective in favoring retinal cell survival in RCS rats. This is the first report showing that the novel rhNGF already proved safe in a phase I study exerts a biologic effect similar to the well-characterized mNGF-induced retinal protection. These results may trigger further studies to investigate rhNGF administration for the treatment of progressive degenerative retinal disorders such as retinitis pigmentosa.
Keywords: Animal model; apoptosis; nerve growth factor; retinal photoreceptors; retinitis pigmentosa.