Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a group of photoreceptor degenerative disorders that lead to loss of vision. Typically, rod photoreceptors degenerate first, resulting in loss of night and peripheral vision. Secondary cone degeneration eventually affects central vision, leading to total blindness. Previous studies have shown that photoreceptors could be protected from degeneration by exogenous neurotrophic factors, including ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF), a member of the IL-6 family of cytokines. Using a transgenic rat model of retinal degeneration (the S334-ter rat), we investigated the effects of Oncostatin M (OSM), another member of the IL-6 family of cytokines, on photoreceptor protection. We found that exogenous OSM protects both rod and cone photoreceptors. In addition, OSM promotes regeneration of cone outer segments in early stages of cone degeneration. Further investigation showed that OSM treatment induces STAT3 phosphorylation in Müller cells but not in photoreceptors, suggesting that OSM not directly acts on photoreceptors and that the protective effects of OSM on photoreceptors are mediated by Müller cells. These findings support the therapeutic strategy using members of IL-6 family of cytokines for retinal degenerative disorders. They also provide evidence that activation of the STAT3 pathway in Müller cells promotes photoreceptor survival. Our work highlights the importance of Müller cell-photoreceptor interaction in the retina, which may serve as a model of glia-neuron interaction in general.
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