RPE65 is specifically expressed in the retinal pigment epithelium and is essential for the recycling of 11- cis-retinal, the chromophore of rod and cone opsins. In humans, mutations in RPE65 lead to Leber congenital amaurosis or early-onset retinal dystrophy, a severe form of retinitis pigmentosa. The proof of feasibility of gene therapy for RPE65 deficiency has already been established in a dog model of Leber congenital amaurosis, but rescue of the cone function, although crucial for human high-acuity vision, has never been strictly proven. In Rpe65 knockout mice, photoreceptors show a drastically reduced light sensitivity and are subject to degeneration, the cone photoreceptors being lost at early stages of the disease. In the present study, we address the question of whether application of a lentiviral vector expressing the Rpe65 mouse cDNA prevents cone degeneration and restores cone function in Rpe65 knockout mice.
Subretinal injection of the vector in Rpe65-deficient mice led to sustained expression of Rpe65 in the retinal pigment epithelium. Electroretinogram recordings showed that Rpe65 gene transfer restored retinal function to a near-normal pattern. We performed histological analyses using cone-specific markers and demonstrated that Rpe65 gene transfer completely prevented cone degeneration until at least four months, an age at which almost all cones have degenerated in the untreated Rpe65-deficient mouse. We established an algorithm that allows prediction of the cone-rescue area as a function of transgene expression, which should be a useful tool for future clinical trials. Finally, in mice deficient for both RPE65 and rod transducin, Rpe65 gene transfer restored cone function when applied at an early stage of the disease.
By demonstrating that lentivirus-mediated Rpe65 gene transfer protects and restores the function of cones in the Rpe65 −/− mouse, this study reinforces the therapeutic value of gene therapy for RPE65 deficiencies, suggests a cone-preserving treatment for the retina, and evaluates a potentially effective viral vector for this purpose.
In the Rpe65 -/- mouse model of Leber congenital amaurosis, injection of a lentiviral vector expressing the Rpe65 mouse cDNA was able to prevent cone degeneration and restore cone function.
Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA) is the name of a group of hereditary diseases that cause blindness in infants and children. Changes in any one of a number of different genes can cause the blindness, which affects vision starting at birth or soon after. The condition was first described by a German doctor, Theodore Leber, in the 19th century, hence the first part of the name; “amaurosis” is another word for blindness. Mutations in one gene called retinal pigment epithelium-specific protein, 65 kDa (RPE65)—so called because it is expressed in the pigment epithelium, a cell layer adjacent to the light-sensitive cells, and is 65 kilodaltons in size—cause about 10% of cases of LCA. The product of this gene is essential for the recycling of a substance called 11- cis-retinal, which is necessary for the light-sensitive rods and cones of the retina to capture light. If the gene is abnormal, the sensitivity of the retina to light is drastically reduced, but it also leads to damage to the light-sensitive cells themselves.
Potentially, eyes diseases such as this one could be treated by gene therapy, which works by replacing a defective gene with a normal functional one, usually by putting a copy of the normal gene into a harmless virus and injecting it into the affected tissue—in this case, the eye. The researchers here wanted to see whether expressing wild-type RPE65 using a particular type of gene vector that can carry large pieces of DNA transcript—a lentiviral vector—could prevent degeneration of cone cells and restore cone function in a mouse model of this type of LCA—mice who had had this Rpe65 gene genetically removed.
Injection of the normal gene into the retina of Rpe65-deficient mice led to sustained expression of the protein RPE65 in the retinal pigment epithelium. Electrical recordings of the activity of the eyes in these mice showed that Rpe65 gene transfer restored retinal function to a near-normal level. In addition, Rpe65 gene transfer completely prevented cone degeneration until at least four months, an age at which almost all cones have degenerated in the untreated Rpe65-deficient mice.
These findings suggest that it is theoretically possible to treat this type of blindness by gene therapy. However, because this study was done in mice, many other steps need to be taken before it will be clear whether the treatment could work in humans. These steps include a demonstration that the virus is safe in humans, and experiments to determine what dose of virus would be needed and how long the effects of the treatment would last. Another question is whether it would be necessary (or even possible) to treat affected children during early childhood or when children start losing vision.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030347.
The Foundation for Retinal Research has detailed information on Leber's congenital amaurosis
Contact a Family is a UK organization that aims to put families of children with illnesses in touch with each other
The Foundation for Fighting Blindness funds research into, and provides information about many types of blindness, including Leber's congenital amaurosis
This Web site provides information on gene therapy clinical trials, including those dedicated to cure eye diseases
This foundation provides information on diseases leading to blindness, including Leber's congenital amaurosis