In-Depth Molecular Characterization of Neovascular Membranes Suggests a Role for Hyalocyte-to-Myofibroblast Transdifferentiation in Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy

Front Immunol. 2021 Nov 2:12:757607. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2021.757607. eCollection 2021.


Background: Retinal neovascularization (RNV) membranes can lead to a tractional retinal detachment, the primary reason for severe vision loss in end-stage disease proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR). The aim of this study was to characterize the molecular, cellular and immunological features of RNV in order to unravel potential novel drug treatments for PDR.

Methods: A total of 43 patients undergoing vitrectomy for PDR, macular pucker or macular hole (control patients) were included in this study. The surgically removed RNV and epiretinal membranes were analyzed by RNA sequencing, single-cell based Imaging Mass Cytometry and conventional immunohistochemistry. Immune cells of the vitreous body, also known as hyalocytes, were isolated from patients with PDR by flow cytometry, cultivated and characterized by immunohistochemistry. A bioinformatical drug repurposing approach was applied in order to identify novel potential drug options for end-stage diabetic retinopathy disease.

Results: The in-depth transcriptional and single-cell protein analysis of diabetic RNV tissue samples revealed an accumulation of endothelial cells, macrophages and myofibroblasts as well as an abundance of secreted ECM proteins such as SPARC, FN1 and several types of collagen in RNV tissue. The immunohistochemical staining of cultivated vitreal hyalocytes from patients with PDR showed that hyalocytes express α-SMA (alpha-smooth muscle actin), a classic myofibroblast marker. According to our drug repurposing analysis, imatinib emerged as a potential immunomodulatory drug option for future treatment of PDR.

Conclusion: This study delivers the first in-depth transcriptional and single-cell proteomic characterization of RNV tissue samples. Our data suggest an important role of hyalocyte-to-myofibroblast transdifferentiation in the pathogenesis of diabetic vitreoretinal disease and their modulation as a novel possible clinical approach.

Keywords: Imaging Mass Cytometry; RNA sequencing; hyalocytes; myofibroblasts; proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR); retinal neovascularization (RNV); transdifferentiation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cell Transdifferentiation*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Computational Biology
  • Diabetic Retinopathy / complications
  • Diabetic Retinopathy / drug therapy
  • Diabetic Retinopathy / metabolism
  • Diabetic Retinopathy / pathology*
  • Drug Repositioning
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Endothelial Cells / pathology
  • Epiretinal Membrane / metabolism
  • Epiretinal Membrane / pathology*
  • Eye Proteins / biosynthesis
  • Eye Proteins / genetics
  • Female
  • Gene Ontology
  • Humans
  • Imatinib Mesylate / therapeutic use
  • Immunologic Factors / therapeutic use
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myofibroblasts / pathology*
  • Retinal Neovascularization / etiology
  • Retinal Neovascularization / metabolism
  • Retinal Neovascularization / pathology*
  • Retinal Perforations / pathology
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • Transcriptome
  • Vitreous Body / immunology*
  • Vitreous Body / pathology
  • Young Adult


  • Eye Proteins
  • Immunologic Factors
  • Imatinib Mesylate