The association of retinal hypoxia with retinal neovascularization has been recognized for decades, causing Michaelson to postulate in 1948 that a factor secreted by hypoxic retina was involved. The isolation of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), characterization of its angiogenic activity, and demonstration that its expression was increased in hypoxic tissue made it a prime candidate. Intraocular levels of VEGF are elevated in patients with retinal or iris neovascularization, and VEGF-specific antagonists markedly suppress retinal neovascularization in mice and primates with ischemic retinopathy. Vascular endothelial growth factor antagonists also suppress choroidal neovascularization, and transgenic expression of VEGF in the retina of mice causes subretinal neovascularization. Clinical trials using a VEGF antagonist that blocks all isoforms of VEGF-A in patients with neovascular age-related macular degeneration (nAMD) demonstrated dramatic benefit. Similar results have been obtained with 2 other VEGF antagonists. Retinal hypoxia also contributes to diabetic macular edema (DME), and because of the absence of good animal models, small clinical trials were used to test the role of VEGF. The results clearly implicated VEGF as a major contributor to DME and have been confirmed by several large multicenter trials. A similar strategy demonstrated that VEGF is a major contributor to macular edema resulting from retinal vein occlusion, also confirmed in multicenter trials. Secondary outcomes in these large clinical trials have shown that VEGF inhibition improves retinal hemorrhages, retinal vessel closure, and progression of nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy. Anti-VEGF agents also provide therapeutic benefits in proliferative diabetic retinopathy. Thus, the development of VEGF antagonists has revolutionized the treatment of nAMD, diabetic retinopathy, and other ischemic retinopathies, but in many patients, the upregulation of VEGF is prolonged. Although the molecular signaling by which hypoxia and some other insults lead to upregulation of VEGF has been elucidated, it has not yet led to a treatment that reliably reduces the production of VEGF, necessitating continued neutralization by repeated intraocular injections of VEGF antagonists in many patients. The next horizon in the evolution of anti-VEGF therapy is the development of longer-acting agents or delivery platforms that provide sustained neutralization with fewer injections.
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