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Yida Jiang, Li-Juan Duan, Jingbo Pi, Yun-Zheng Le, Guo-Hua Fong; Dependence of Retinal Pigment Epithelium Integrity on the NRF2–Heme Oxygenase-1 Axis. Invest. Ophthalmol. Vis. Sci. 2022;63(9):30. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/iovs.63.9.30.
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Tight junctions (TJs) form the structural basis of retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) barrier functions. Although oxidative stress contributes to age-related macular degeneration, it is unclear how RPE TJ integrity is controlled by redox balance. In this study, we investigated the protective roles of nuclear factor erythroid 2–related factor 2 (NRF2), a transcription factor, and heme oxygenase-1 (HO1), a heme-degrading enzyme encoded by the NRF2 target gene HMOX1.
ARPE19 cell cultures and mice, including wild-type, Nrf2−/−, and RPE-specific NRF2-deficient mice, were treated with chemicals that impose oxidative stress or impact heme metabolism. In addition, NRF2 and HO1 expression in ARPE19 cells was knocked down by siRNA. TJ integrity was examined by anti–zonula occludens-1 staining of cultured cells or flatmount RPE tissues from mice. RPE barrier functions were evaluated by transepithelium electrical resistance in ARPE19 cells and immunofluorescence staining for albumin or dextran in eye histological sections.
TJ structures and RPE barrier functions were compromised due to oxidant exposure and NRF2 deficiency but were rescued by HO1 inducer. Furthermore, treatment with HO1 inhibitor or heme precursor is destructive to TJ structures and RPE barrier properties. Interestingly, both NRF2 and HO1 were upregulated under oxidative stress, probably as an adaptive response to mitigate oxidant-inflicted damages.
Our data indicate that the NRF2–HO1 axis protects TJ integrity and RPE barrier functions by driving heme degradation.
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