Novel engineered, membrane-localized variants of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) protect retinal ganglion cells: a proof-of-concept study

Date Published:

2018 Oct 03


Endogenous vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF-A) can protect retinal ganglion cells (RGC) from stress-induced cell death in ocular hypertensive glaucoma. To exploit the neuroprotective function of VEGF-A for therapeutic application in ocular disorders such as glaucoma while minimizing unwanted vascular side effects, we engineered two novel VEGF variants, eVEGF-38 and eVEGF-53. These variants of the diffusible VEGF-A isoform VEGF121 are expressed as dimeric concatamers and remain tethered to the cell membrane, thus restricting the effects of the engineered VEGF to the cells expressing the protein. For comparison, we tested a Myc-tagged version of VEGF189, an isoform that binds tightly to the extracellular matrix and heparan sulfate proteoglycans at the cell surface, supporting only autocrine and localized juxtacrine signaling. In human retinal endothelial cells (hREC), expression of eVEGF-38, eVEGF-53, or VEGF189 increased VEGFR2 phosphorylation without increasing expression of pro-inflammatory markers, relative to VEGF165 protein and vector controls. AAV2-mediated transduction of eVEGF-38, eVEGF-53, or VEGF189 into primary mouse RGC promoted synaptogenesis and increased the average total length of neurites and axons per RGC by ~ 12-fold, an increase that was mediated by VEGFR2 and PI3K/AKT signaling. Expression of eVEGF-38 in primary RGC enhanced expression of genes associated with neuritogenesis, axon outgrowth, axon guidance, and cell survival. Transduction of primary RGC with any of the membrane-associated VEGF constructs increased survival both under normal culture conditions and in the presence of the cytotoxic chemicals HO (via VEGFR2/PI3K/AKT signaling) and N-methyl-D-aspartate (via reduced Ca influx). Moreover, RGC number was increased in mouse embryonic stem cell-derived retinal organoid cultures transduced with the eVEGF-53 construct. The novel, engineered VEGF variants eVEGF-38 and eVEGF-53 show promise as potential therapeutics for retinal RGC neuroprotection when delivered using a gene therapy approach.

Last updated on 11/01/2018