Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is an inherited retinal disease affecting >20 million people worldwide. Loss of daylight vision typically occurs due to the dysfunction/loss of cone photoreceptors, the cell type that initiates our color and high-acuity vision. Currently, there is no effective treatment for RP, other than gene therapy for a limited number of specific disease genes. To develop a disease gene-agnostic therapy, we screened 20 genes for their ability to prolong cone photoreceptor survival in vivo. Here, we report an adeno-associated virus vector expressing Txnip, which prolongs the survival of cone photoreceptors and improves visual acuity in RP mouse models. A Txnip allele, C247S, which blocks the association of Txnip with thioredoxin, provides an even greater benefit. Additionally, the rescue effect of Txnip depends on lactate dehydrogenase b (Ldhb) and correlates with the presence of healthier mitochondria, suggesting that Txnip saves RP cones by enhancing their lactate catabolism.
Keywords: cone photoreceptor; gene therapy; medicine; mitochondria; mouse; neurodegeneration; neuroscience; retina; retinal metabolism.
Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited eye disease affecting around one in every 4,000 people. It results from genetic defects in light sensitive cells of the retina, called photoreceptor cells, which line the back of the eye. Though vision loss can occur from birth, retinitis pigmentosa usually involves a gradual loss of vision, sometimes leading to blindness. Rod photoreceptors, which are responsible for vision in low light, are impacted first. The disease then affects cone photoreceptors, the cells that detect light during the day, providing both color and sharp vision. Around 100 mutated genes associated with retinitis pigmentosa have been identified, but only a handful of families with one of these mutant genes have been treated with a gene therapy specific for their mutated gene. There are currently no therapies available to treat the vast number of people with this disease. The mutations that cause retinitis pigmentosa directly affect the rod cells that detect dim light, leading to loss of night vision. There is also an indirect effect that causes cone photoreceptors to stop working and die. One theory to explain this two-step disease process relates to the fact that cone photoreceptors are very active cells, requiring a high level of energy, nutrients and oxygen. If surrounding rod cells die, cone photoreceptors may be deprived of some essential supplies, leading to cone cell death and daylight vision loss. To examine this theory, Xue et al. tested a new gene therapy designed to alleviate the potential shortfall in nutrients. The experiments used three different strains of mice that had the same genetic mutations as humans with retinitis pigmentosa. The gene therapy used a virus, called adeno-associated virus (AAV), to deliver 20 different genes to cone cells. Each of the 20 genes tested plays a different role in cells’ processing of nutrients to provide energy. After administering the treatment, Xue et al. monitored the mice to see whether or not their vision was affected, and how cone cells responded. Only one of the 20 genes, Txnip, delivered using gene therapy, had a beneficial effect, prolonging cone cell survival in all three mouse strains. The mice that received Txnip also retained their ability to discern moving stripes on vision tests. Further investigations demonstrated that activating Txnip forced the cones to start using a molecule called lactate as an energy source, which could be more available to them than glucose, their usual fuel. These cells also had healthier mitochondria – the compartments inside cells that produce and manage energy supplies. This dual effect on fuel use and mitochondrial health is thought to be the basis for the extended cone survival and function. These experiments by Xue et al. have identified a good gene therapy candidate for treating retinitis pigmentosa independently of which genes are causing the disease. Further research will be required to test the safety of the gene therapy, and whether its beneficial effects translate to humans with retinitis pigmentosa, and potentially other diseases with unhealthy photoreceptors.
© 2021, Xue et al.