RPE phagocytic function declines in age-related macular degeneration and is rescued by human umbilical tissue derived cells

George Inana, Christopher Murat, Weijun An, Xiang Yao, Ian R. Harris, Jing Cao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Background: Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of blindness among the elderly characterized by retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) degeneration with accumulation of abnormal intracellular deposits (lipofuscin) and photoreceptor death. RPE is vital for the retina and integrity of photoreceptors through its phagocytic function which is closely linked to formation of lipofuscin through daily phagocytosis of discarded photoreceptor outer segments (POS). Although phagocytosis has been implicated in AMD, it has not been directly shown to be altered in AMD. RPE phagocytic defect was previously shown to be rescued by subretinal injection of human umbilical tissue derived cells (hUTC) in a rodent model of retinal degeneration (RCS rat) through receptor tyrosine kinase (RTK) ligands and bridge molecules. Here, we examined RPE phagocytic function directly in the RPE from AMD patients and the ability and mechanisms of hUTC to affect phagocytosis in the human RPE. Methods: Human RPE was isolated from the post-mortem eyes of normal and AMD-affected subjects and cultured. RPE phagocytic function was measured in vitro using isolated POS. The effects of hUTC conditioned media, recombinant RTK ligands brain-derived neurotrophic factor(BDNF), hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), and glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor(GDNF), as well as bridge molecules milk-fat-globule-EGF-factor 8(MFG-E8), thrombospondin (TSP)-1, and TSP-2 on phagocytosis were also examined in phagocytosis assays using isolated POS. RNA was isolated from normal and AMD RPE treated with hUTC conditioned media and subjected to transcriptome profiling by RNA-Seq and computational analyses. Results: RPE phagocytosis, while showing a moderate decline with age, was significantly reduced in AMD RPE, more than expected for age. hUTC conditioned media stimulated phagocytosis in the normal human RPE and significantly rescued the phagocytic dysfunction in the AMD RPE. RTK ligands and bridge molecules duplicated the rescue effect. Moreover, multiple molecular pathways involving phagocytosis, apoptosis, oxidative stress, inflammation, immune activation, and cholesterol transport were affected by hUTC in the RPE. Conclusions: We demonstrated for the first time RPE phagocytic dysfunction in AMD, highlighting its likely importance in AMD, and the ability of hUTC to correct this dysfunction, providing insights into the therapeutic potential of hUTC for AMD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number63
JournalJournal of translational medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 13 2018


  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Bridge molecules
  • Cell therapy
  • Human umbilical tissue derived cells
  • Phagocytosis
  • Receptor tyrosine kinase
  • Retinal pigment epithelium

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


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